The Commoners


American Robin


“They don’t get no respect”.  Most are not even considered to be “feathered friends”.  Look out your window and you see them.  They’re ubiquitous and consequently ignored.

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura                  click on photos to zoom

But their numbers alone speak to their remarkable success.  These are the birds the non-birders can identify.  They are survivors and adapters, and have carved out their niches in an environment dominated by man.  If you look carefully they are not ugly, perhaps with one exception.  Here’s my list of commoners;  you may have others depending on your location:  Turkey Vulture, American Robin, Mourning Dove, European Starling, House Sparrow, Mallard, and Northern Mockingbird.

Turkey Vulture

Beginning with the ugly TV, the red featherless head is way too small for the large black body.  This bird is a harbinger of death, living on roadkill.  It makes me a little uneasy to see them circling overhead in great numbers whenever I take out the trash.  How do they know I’m feeling my age and a little under the weather?  Look at their nervous flight pattern, constantly readjusting their glide paths as if they were just learning to fly.  They have a well-developed sense of smell and apparently find the rotting carrion by odor, regurgitating this mess into the mouths of their hungry chicks.  It all seems so fitting.

juvenile American Robins, Turdus migratorius

The American Robin is the first bird our country’s school children learn since they see it hopping across virtually every suburban lawn and serenading them each morning.  In our neighborhood they are present year-round, usually congregating into large flocks once their breeding season has ended.  When I lived further north in Upstate New York they left us each fall and their springtime return was a welcome early sign of spring, hence their Latin name, T. migratorius.  This common Thrush is an overlooked beauty.

Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura

Rock Pigeon, Columba livia

My next choice is the Mourning Dove, but just substitute a Rock Dove, aka Pigeon, if you’re an urban dweller.  They also have a head too small for their body–is there a pattern here?  This gentle bird is common, but so welcome with that mournful cooing heard every morning and evening.  I’m still trying to figure out the origin of the whistling noise whenever they take off, as if their wings need some WD40.  Their numbers are increasing despite, or possibly because of us humans.  They are a regular foraging on the ground below our feeders.

European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris

We only have only one Starling, but use the modifier “European” seemingly to blame the Old World for S. vulgaris, first brought to our shores in 1890.  It has dispersed throughout the continent, congealing into large flocks in fall and winter.  The Starling’s  success stems from its toughness and intelligence and I can also vouch for its persistence.  Each spring it tries to build a nest in my boat-lift motor box and every week I take the box apart and pick out the twigs, only to have it return again, and again, and again.  Six weeks later I win, usually.  But look closely and you’ll see some shimmering metallic beauty, even in this pest.

House Sparrow, Passer domesticus

We can also blame Europe for the House Sparrow, introduced in New York in 1851.  Its widespread abundance and success stems from one simple fact–it likes us.  You’ll find it all year long in the rural farmyards or on the urban sidewalks, but rarely in the unpopulated woods and fields.  People, cars, trucks, and exhaust–no problem.  It aggressively evicts Bluebirds and Swallows from their nests.  Its name is even wrong.  The House Sparrow is really a finch and not a New World Sparrow, but in any case, it’s one tough bird.

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos

Now, take the Mallard (put the accent to the second syllable to give the duck a little more class), but whatever you do a Mallard suffers from over exposure.  It’s the “Make Way For Duckling” duck that everyone knows.  Its promiscuity does not help its reputation; it even hybridizes with other species.  Be that as it may, when the light strikes that metallic green head just right, you will be dazzled.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

Lastly I give you the Northern Mockingbird.  Of all the commoners this is the one that is invariably at my front door, back porch, and bedroom window, 24/7, twelve months a year.  The Mocker’s, Mimic polyglottos, remarkable repertoire of song is repeated incessantly, sometimes to the point of distraction and may drive one to drink.  It’s like the friend that will just not stop talking or singing and has never learned the joy of quietude.  It’s also not shy.  It will staunchly defend its territory, even attacking my old dog out for an innocent garden stroll.  Despite this, the bird has become one of the family and a welcome resident in our yard.  Recovering from years of being captured and caged, the Mocker is expanding its territory northward, approaching the Canadian border.

Northern Mockingbird

So much for the commoners.  I’m packing my bags for a trip to Magee Marsh, Ohio, and a rendezvous with the uncommon Warblers, migrating northward in their finest breeding garb.  Hopefully they will pose for a few Kodak moments along the Shore of Lake Erie–full report to follow.