These are the birds no one loves. They’re numerous, obnoxious, and ubiquitous. We often do not even tick them off on our eBird lists; why bother? Most do not migrate; we’re stuck with them all year long. Monthly the National Audubon Society scares us with a growing list of near-extinctions, but these birds never make the list. Despite our efforts to pollute and destroy habitats, these birds thrive.
But, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. If you don’t believe this just watch a couple episodes of the Antique Roadshow on PBS. A little research can reveal beauty, wonder, and maybe even some monetary reward in even the most unlikely of candidates. With this in mind this post tries to uncover a few redeeming qualities in my list of trash birds, at least in the beauty and wonder departments.
Take the House Sparrow, please. Previously known as the English Sparrow, it was introduced to New York in 1851, and we are still wondering why. This aggressive Old World sparrow is a native of Eurasia and northern Africa and has enjoyed phenomenal success in North America. The lookalike cousin across the pond is the Eurasian Tree Sparrow. Its strategy has been to seek out urban centers, crowded sidewalk cafes, and virtually any man-made structure. You can’t say the male is ugly with its gray head, black beard, and brown and white highlights. The female is just another difficult to identify LBJ, (little brown job).
Speaking of urban-loving birds transplanted to us from Europe, Africa, and India, you can count the feral Pigeon. In more polite circles they are known as Rock Doves. We are partly to blame for their success, domesticating them for their homing tendencies. As we all know they have taken over our park benches, school yards, and sky scraper ledges. A few have attempted to return to their rural roots, nesting on coastal cliffs and mountainsides, but the vast majority still cling to us humans and our cities. Their redeeming feature is the great variety of iridescent feathers and that striking red eye.
Next there are the Grackles. Just the name reminds one of their irritating call that mimics a rusty gate desperately in need of oil. They often travel in wolf-like packs, swarming the feeder and driving off the shier passerines. They have single handedly caused me to shut down the feeders in the warm weather. One can only afford so many bags of sunflower seeds on a fixed retirement income. You have to look closely to reveal their beauty, also found in the iridescent plumage and piercing golden eye of the male Common Grackle. The less common cousins, the Boat-tailed and Great-tailed, share similar assets and liabilities.
Sea Gulls have lost the “sea” in their name and have moved inland following our human trash, dumps, waste water treatment plants, and McDonalds parking lots. For a birder to become an expert observer of this confusing family of lookalikes, he or she must become gullible. They’ll take you to some of the most acrid and non-picturesque places on the planet and your reward will be a squabbling colony of black, white, and shades of gray. You’ll have to hope for the chills and thrills of finding a rarity amidst that flock of a thousand scavengers.
We could drop the “European” from the name of our only Starling in North America, but keep it as a reminder of where this “gift” came from in 1890. It has taken over the continent with vast flocks forming in the fall and winter. It crowds out other birds in both the urban centers and rural farmlands, competing with other more welcome cavity nesters. They are persistent. I’ve now removed their nest from my boat-lift motor six times this spring, the last time despite a new protective screen. They pecked right through it. On a sunny day, when I’m feeling upbeat, I can appreciate the metallic hues given off by their feathers, decorated with a sprinkle of dots. The yellow bill of the summertime male adds a nice contrast. I’m trying to be kind.
Remember the phrase, “a face only a mother could love”? The maternal Brown-headed Cowbird must have forgotten it. She just clandestinely deposits her eggs in another innocent passerine’s nest and moves on, without even gazing upon the face of her offspring. These brood parasites have developed a successful policy of avoiding the hard work of parenthood. You have to admire their audacity or perhaps find some pleasure in their contrasting brown and black coloration, but its hard to find anything good to say about them.
We’re frequently told that Crows are among the smartest of all birds, but intelligence is no excuse and protector from being on my trash list. There is a reason that a flock of these birds is called a “murder” of crows. When’s the last time you saw a crow sitting innocently on a wire, just enjoying life. They’re always chasing or being chased, raising a raucous, or attacking a poor songbird. Perhaps you can admire their energy, but they are a constant reminder that intelligence does not always breed contentment.
So there you have it, my list of trash birds. I suspect this post will find disfavor among my birding friends who find beauty in all the creation. On a good day I am among their ranks, but lately my tolerance level has been tested. Here’s to better days ahead.