Important Changes to Exotic Species in eBird

By Team eBird August 5, 2022

The updated distribution map for European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) shows it is native to Eurasia (purple) but has been widely introduced on at least four additional continents where it is not native (orange). Updated distribution maps are one of several recent eBird changes to promote greater awareness of human-introduced bird populations.

We are ecstatic to announce that the way eBird displays human-introduced populations of birds is changing! Highlights include—

  • Species maps show non-native ranges in orange and have new toggles to hide exotic reports. A few fun examples: Chukar, Chiloe Wigeon, Laughing Kookaburra.
  • Exotic species are now clearly marked with asterisk icons on checklists and explore pages; click an icon to see its definition.
  • Non-naturalized exotic species are grouped separately on regional and hotspot species lists, so you can explore non-established species for a region (e.g., all Escapees reported from Spain).
  • Illustrated Checklists, such as this one for Texas, also group non-naturalized species separately—and now include hybrids and other non-species taxa!

New Exotic Species icons appear on eBird checklists, explore pages, and illustrated checklists; click an icon to see what it means. The checklist above is from Hawaii, where many native species are endangered or extinct, and many exotic species have been introduced.

Work in progress—we expect additional changes later this year, including improvements to My eBird and eBird Life Lists. Read below or visit our help center page for more information about these changes.

Exotic species are bird populations that occur somewhere as a direct result of human transportation. As of August 2022, at least 4.8% of observations in eBird’s 1.27 billion bird database involved records of exotic species, showing that exotic species are a major part of many bird communities. Studying how these birds interact with ecosystems is important for conservation, management, and science.

Some exotic species are harmful to native bird populations, competing with them for nest sites and food, aggressively driving them away, or even preying on them. In other cases, exotics are more benign. In an ironic conservation conundrum, some endangered species threatened by the cage bird trade maintain larger free-flying populations in cities where they’ve been introduced than they do in their native home ranges (e.g., Red-crowned Parrots Amazona viridigenalis in Los Angeles, Brownsville, and Miami).

Red-crowned Parrot © Bryan Calk / Macaulay Library

Populations of exotic species can often change much faster than populations of native species. eBird is an incredibly valuable tool for tracking the establishment and spread of human-introduced birds in the wild. Through your eBird reports, researchers can monitor non-native bird populations in near-real-time.

To encourage people to pay attention to exotic species, and to count, document, and monitor them whenever and wherever they are found, exotic species are now clearly marked on eBird. Our goal was also to make reporting of these species simpler: just report what you see and hear in the field (and document anything flagged as rare). An exotic tag will automatically be added where applicable and the record will be handled accordingly in eBird.

New Exotic Species Categories

New asterisk icons mark species that are introduced to a region and which eBird Exotic Category they belong to. Any species without an asterisk icon is considered native to that region.

Tap any exotic icon on the eBird website for full Exotic Category definitions:

  • Naturalized—Exotic population is self-sustaining, breeding in the wild, persisting for many years, and not maintained through ongoing releases (including vagrants from naturalized populations). These count in official eBird totals and, where applicable, have been accepted by regional bird records committee(s).
  • Provisional—Either: 1) member of exotic population that is breeding in the wild, self-propagating, and has persisted for multiple years, but not yet Naturalized; 2) rarity of uncertain provenance, with natural vagrancy or captive provenance both considered plausible. When applicable, eBird generally defers to bird records committees for records formally considered to be of “uncertain provenance”. Provisional species count in official eBird totals.
  • Escapee—Exotic species known or suspected to be escaped or released, including those that have bred in the wild but don’t yet fulfill the criteria for Provisional. Escapee exotics do not count in official eBird totals.

Understanding these Exotic Categories is important, since they control how species are tallied and grouped in eBird. For more information about these categories and how they are assigned, see our help center resource: Exotic Species in eBird.

Exotic Species in eBird outputs

In the past, Escapee records were usually treated as Unconfirmed in eBird. One significant advantage of this new development is that we can now display all records of free-flying escapees that have been entered in eBird. As part of this, 200,000 records of escapees that had previously been hidden are now public—a major win for understanding bird distribution in the modern world. Along the way, we’ve been astounded by some of the escapees that birders have found:

Check out this Giant Wood-Rail in Florida, this Long-tailed Mockingbird in Washington,  this Australian King-Parrot in the Netherlands, or this Turkey Vulture in Japan.

The Flamingo Lakes south of Dubai have a staggering number of bizarre escapees from around the world, from Hawaiian Geese to Trumpeter Swans and Gray Crowned-Cranes. Check out the full list of escapees found in these desert ponds here.

Provisional and Escapee species are now grouped separately on eBird explore pages. Escapee species are not numbered and no longer count towards regional and hotspot species totals. Escapee species will also no longer appear in eBird Alerts. In this way, escaped birds are now treated similarly to hybrids, ‘sp.’ and ‘slash’ species in eBird—they are important to report, and interesting to observers, but aren’t part of official avifaunal lists or tallies.

There are many benefits to these changes: 

  • Simpler reporting: just report all non-captive birds you see or hear, eBird will tag non-native species automatically.
  • Greater public awareness regarding the current status of human-introduced bird populations.
  • Increased transparency in how introduced and exotic species are handled within the eBird database and greater consistency in how these species are handled in our review process.
  • Provisional species are tallied in a separate section, so you can easily explore species totals with and without non-naturalized species.
WORK IN PROGRESS. These changes are the first step in a widespread overhaul of how Exotic Species are treated in eBird.

Later this year, Provisionals and Escapees (exotic birds that have escaped or been intentionally released from captivity) will appear in separate bins in your eBird Life List. Furthermore, Escapees will not be numbered or count toward Top100 or your eBird Life List totals. Escapee species are indicated on eBird with a white asterisk (*) in a dark orange circle.

You will still be able to view and explore your reports of Escapees, as well as other taxa that currently don’t count in your numerical tallies. Stay tuned to our front page and social media channels for more information.

Real-life Examples

There’s a breadth of ways that birds are introduced and expand their ranges. Below are a few real-world situations and how they fit into eBird’s new Exotics Categories. For additional information and more examples, visit Exotic Species in eBird.

  • Canada Goose has been widely released in Europe and breeds in most Western European countries, blurring the question of whether and how much natural vagrancy occurs. Given how well the population is established, all Canada Goose reports in Europe are treated as Naturalized.
  • No. 492 (AKA “Pink Floyd”) the Greater Flamingo–a species native to Eurasia and Africa–escaped from a Kansas zoo in 2005 and is now regularly spotted on the Texas coast. Despite widespread distribution, Greater Flamingos do not occur as vagrants in the United States. Reports of “Pink Floyd” (along with free-roaming Greater Flamingos in Florida and California) are treated as Escapee.
  • Swinhoe’s White-eye was introduced in Costa Mesa, Orange County, California in 2006 and has been spreading widely ever since. Thousands of individuals now occur in southern California; they have even been found in the Channel Islands. It has yet to be added to the species list maintained by the California Birds Record Committee, though we expect formal acceptance eventually. Treating such species as Provisional in eBird helps to communicate their true status and prepare birders for their likely future treatment as Naturalized.

Swinhoe’s White-eye © Robert Hamilton / Macaulay Library

  • Bar-headed Goose, Mandarin Duck, and Wood Duck are just three examples of a wide range of striking waterfowl that are popular with waterfowl fanciers worldwide. They escape regularly and pepper the planet with Escapee records. eBird range maps for these species clearly indicate the native range (in purple) and all three species have some portions of their ranges treated as Provisional or Naturalized. Explore the maps for Bar-headed Goose, Mandarin Duck, and Wood Duck and try the Escapee toggle to show or hide grid cells that have only Escapee records. Zoom in and click points to see Exotic Status at a location.

Additional examples and details about eBird’s updated Exotic Species policy

Can I enter captive birds?

While escapees are now more visible than ever before, captive birds should still not be entered in eBird. Some checklists may not be shown publicly or used for science if multiple captive species are reported. Unless they have clearly escaped, please don’t enter observations of:

  • Birds seen as part of a display in a zoo or aviary (you can still do checklists from zoos, just report only the wild birds!)
  • Birds such as Mute Swans, Indian Peafowl, domestic chickens (Red Junglefowl), Helmeted Guineafowl, etc., that are people’s pets and return to a cage or enclosure each night.
  • Raptors being rehabilitated or shown in falconry demonstrations, even if free-flying; these birds often have jesses (straps) hanging from their legs.

What to report to eBird and additional best practices.

Watch the eBird homepage for more announcements about updates to exotic species handling expected later this year!