Invisible Birds


A murmuration, or flock, of European Starlings  Photo by Walter Baxter
A murmuration, or flock, of European Starlings Photo by Walter Baxter

The human mind gets bored easily. When you smell something for long enough, you stop noticing it. We are equally inattentive to things we see routinely- our eyes see them, but our brain doesn’t pay much attention and we sort of look right past them as though they were invisible.

The same holds true for common species of birds.  I am willing to bet that on most days that you step outside in the Grand Valley, or even look out your window, you see at least one of the following three bird species:  House Sparrow, European Starling and Pigeon.  These birds are commonplace around cities, suburbs and agricultural settings.  Some birders call them “trash birds,” because they are like visual trash that your eyes have to sort through to pick out the unusual or desirable birds.  I am starting to think that term is a little unfair.  I now like to think of them as “invisible birds”- they are so common you look right through them.

These birds deserve a second glance.  Like them or not, their ability to adapt to the habitats that humans create has allowed them to hitch a ride with us as our settlements expand around the globe.  Now House Sparrows are the most widely distributed bird species on the planet. The European Starling, first introduced to this continent about 120 years ago, now ranges across North America and numbers over 200 million.  Pigeons are now so associated with cities, that when we see them in places like the Colorado National Monument they may seem out of place- even though their natural nesting habitat is cliff faces rather than tall buildings.

Many bird-lovers dislike these species for more legitimate reasons than simple commonness.  House sparrows and European Starlings prefer to nest in cavities, such as tree holes or nest boxes.  Cavities are a limited resource and these two introduced species often displace struggling native birds.  Bluebird lovers may despise House Sparrows in particular as these birds will destroy nests and forcibly evict bluebirds from the nest boxes the birders install for them.   I don’t believe pigeons directly compete with any native species, but many city dwellers, perhaps annoyed by their droppings, refer to them as “flying rats.”

Personally I would prefer a pigeon to a rat any day.  Were it not for abundant pigeon prey, Peregrine Falcons may not have made a comeback and established themselves in many large cities.  Even here in Grand Junction, I have seen Peregrines perched on the tower on the corner of 8th and Main Street.  European Starlings may be a dime a dozen, but take a moment to listen to them.  These relatives of mynah birds are accomplished mimics, and can do convincing impressions of hawks and other birds.  The cheeky House Sparrow is easy and fun to watch as it squabbles over nest sites, and takes dust baths.

It is easy to disregard these “invisible birds” because they are common or to dislike them when they displace native birds.  But don’t blame them.  After all, we brought them here and created the conditions that have allowed them to thrive.  Take a moment to admire the boldness that allows them to live amidst a large, noisy  creature like humans.  Or the cleverness that allows them to exploit new food resources like French fries, and habitats like highway overpasses.  Have a little empathy for these immigrants whose fate has been so tied up with our own.

Pigeon Photo by Alexander Gamauf
Pigeon   Photo by Alexander Gamauf

Pigeon (Columba livia)

Domesticated pigeons were introduced to North America by European Settlers around 1600 and some then established feral populations.  These birds have been bred by humans for over 5,000 years for meat, as a hobby, and to carry messages.  Carrier pigeons have served militaries for hundreds of years.  In WWI, a pigeon named Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for carrying a message through enemy fire that saved the lives of 194 American soldiers.   Pigeons may have served in war as recently as 2008, when the New York Times reported that they were being used by Iraqi militia.

Male House Sparrow  photo by Joaquim Alves Gaspar
Male House Sparrow   Photo by Joaquim Alves Gaspar

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

The House Sparrow has long been associated with humans and agriculture.  It spread from Middle East, where agriculture originated, into Europe and North Africa and was later introduced to the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and other islands.  It is now the most widely distributed wild bird on the planet.  European immigrants, who wanted to see birds from their homeland, introduced the birds to North America in New York City in the early 1850s.  It was also believed that the sparrows might help control insect pests.  It is now considered an agricultural pest in many places, but in Britain where it is a beloved native, its numbers are declining as farming practices change.


European Starling   Photo by Pierre Selim

European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Starlings were brought to New York City in 1890 by a Shakespeare fan who wanted to see all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays introduced to the U.S.  The Starling’s talents as a mimic are mentioned in the play Henry IV.  Starlings get their name from their appearance in flight where their short pointed wings and short tail make them look like a four-pointed star.

An edited version of this article appears in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel’s Outdoors Section, February 17, 2013.  You can read it here at

Invisible Birds

Listening to Spring

Photo by Alan Vernon
Western Meadowlark            Photo by Alan Vernon

(I wrote this short article about bird song for our local website Fruita Pulp.  Check out the local talent (poetry!) and information (mountain biking!) at

The temperature has finally clawed its way back above freezing (during the day at least), the sun is showing itself again, and in honor of Valentine’s Day the Eurasian Collared doves are putting the moves on each other.  If you squint into the distance, you can see spring meandering our way.  Finally.

In my opinion, one of the best things about spring is the way it sounds when you wake up in the morning.  Sound is seasonal- it is an important cue to time and place. When I first wake up, before my eyes even open, I start listening.  My brain is groggily trying to figure out where I am in time and space.  In my case, the first thing I usually hear is cries of “Mommy, Mommy!” but in between summons, I become aware of the background noise.  Cars starting, a passing train, but there are sounds that change with the seasons.  On a snowy winter day, all noise seems muffled by the insulation of the snow.  But if you hear exuberant birdsong, you know it’s spring.

For me spring always brings a burst of energy and ambition.  I want to take on new challenges.  Last year this involved putting in a garden and then starting more seeds than I would ever have room to plant.  This year I challenged myself to show restraint when placing my seed order.  If you are looking for a new challenge this spring, why not learn some bird songs?  Learning birdsongs will certainly help you become a better birder, because you can often hear more birds than you can actually see.  But even if you don’t plan to take up birding as a hobby, there is something about being able to give a name to things that allows you to notice.  I think we could all stand to do a little more noticing of the world around us in this age of distraction and hurry.

Learning birdsongs may appear to be an arduous task, especially to non-musical folks like me- but it doesn’t have to be a chore.  I used to be a teaching assistant for an undergraduate ornithology course.  This course involved a LOT of memorization and the students were often overwhelmed, so I only asked them to learn 10 of the songs most commonly heard on campus.  Ten songs are not a lot, but it can really open a door into the world of natural sounds. You may find yourself noticing sounds and creatures that have been around you, unseen, all along.    If you can identify these common songs, when you hear something that is not in your “top 10” you know it may be something unusual and worth tracking down for a better look. At the very least you can impress your friends, or embarrass them, depending on how cool a crowd you run with.

Here are Fruita’s “top 10” in no particular order.  (The birders who are reading this will surely quibble with my list, but trust me it was REALLY hard to cut down to only 10.) If you click each name, you will be taken to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website where you can listen to each species’ songs and other sounds and see pictures of them.  There will be a quiz on Monday (just kidding.)

  1. Eurasian Collared Dove– these large, pale doves breed pretty early here in the Grand Valley and have already started calling to mates- a classic “koo-KOO-kook.  They also make a really ugly “hwaah” call when alarmed that sounds like a cow in pain to me.
  2. House Sparrow– a commonplace but cheery “cheep, cheep, cheerup”
  3. House Finch– a jumbled warble usually with a slurred “zree” note somewhere near the end.
  4. Starling– an accomplished mimic, the Starling can impersonate other birds like Red-tailed Hawks.  Their song is complex and almost mechanical sounding.
  5. American Robin– the happy classic “cheerily, cheer-up, cheer-up, cheerily!”
  6. Northern Flicker– our most common woodpecker.  Listen for it’s loud “Keeeer!”  call
  7. Western Meadowlark – A beautiful, flute-like melody often heard in pastures and fields.  One of the best sounds of spring.
  8. Mourning Dove –  a softer “coo-oo”, than the Eurasian Collared-Dove, often mistaken for an owl.  (For a great musical tribute to this dove, check out the song “Mornin’ Dove” by Robinella and the CC String Band.)
  9. Common Raven – one of the most intelligent birds, they make a wide variety of sounds including a  loud“Croak!” which can be heard for more than a mile.
  10. Bullock’s Oriole – listen for these near large cottonwoods where they like to build their sock-like nests.  The Oriole’s song is a whistled melody that sounds a bit like the Robin, but has a richer tone and is less repetitive.

The Eurasian Collared Doves have already started calling to mates, but the rest of the gang won’t really get going until April- so you have about 6 weeks to study.  If you learn these, you may then be able to pick out a Lazuli Bunting along the river or a wash.  These small birds are a spectacular blue, orange and white and worth tracking down for a look.  Another bird you’re likely to hear nearby water is the bold Red-winged Blackbird.  Take a hike in McInnis Canyons and you may hear one of my favorites, a Canyon Wren, echoing from the canyon walls or a Black-throated Sparrow singing from atop a four-winged saltbush.  Close your eyes, smell the mud and the fresh leaves, feel the sun warming your face. Be still for a moment and open your ears.  You may be surprised what you can hear.

Listening to Spring