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 (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.
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 (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 http://www.gjsentinel.com/outdoors/articles/urban-birds/