They thrive in our cities, taking over the sidewalks and filling the trees, these hardy species will do anything for a crumb or two to subsist among the human masses.
As the summer wears on, for those of us who can’t escape the concrete jungle, I thought I’d hearken back to my days in DC, commuting by foot and taking in the sights of the city and soaking in whatever nature I could. And it’s a lot more than you might think, if you take your eyes off the sidewalk. As a birdwatcher, there is never a time outside that I’m not aware of the birdlife. When you’re walking the city, you see a lot of the same when it comes to the feathered kind. But it gives you a chance to appreciate the resourcefulness of these species that have adapted to live side by side with humankind.
We’ll start with the ubiquitous House Sparrow. Introduced to the US from England in the mid-19th century to control pests, house sparrows did so well living among humans in heavily populated areas that they quickly became like communal, rampant mice. They’ll congregate along busy sidewalks to pull apart an errant piece of hamburger bun in a flurry of feathers. They’ll hop around tables on restaurant patios. I’ve even had one land on my laptop computer screen as I worked outside at my favorite coffeeshop. But my favorite is the dust bath parties. In the shallow piles of dirt in back alleys or along curbsides, these feisty little critters jiggle together in the dust, feathers splayed in every which direction as they almost vibrate until a little depression forms under the jiggling bird body. These dustbaths, along with frequent preening, gets rid of feather mites and parasites. And they’re a little picky about their personal bubble, fighting off an intruder or hopping in to scare off another bird it finds to be too close for comfort.
House sparrows are very social creatures: never alone, always cheeping in touch. Their various calls all signify something different, as in, if you pay attention, you can start to separate when they’re content, agitated, alarmed or just keeping tabs on each other.
While you’re in the city, you won’t even have to keep an eye out for these busy, prolific birds. Constantly chirping, and trolling alleyways, sidewalks and park greens for those tossed-aside niblets, they occupy human territory with ease. But do keep an eye out for albinism; I’ve seen a full albino house sparrow at Dupont Circle and another with a pair of pure white tail feathers in the city as well.
Starlings are another bird you won’t have any trouble finding in a city. These small black birds are famous for their murmurations. If you haven’t heard of this mind-blowing phenomenon, check this out:
While these European imports aren’t great for our native species, it’s hard not to have an appreciation for their beautiful plumage, which reflects glossy blue-green and light edging that changes with the seasons. These birds are characters, highly vocal, with a variation in calls and mimicry such that you may be fooled into thinking it’s something mechanical nearby is suffering from major issues. You might have come across a roost tree as evening approaches, where the birds gather for the night during the winter. Before bed, the entire tree is alive with squeaks, buzzes, alarm calls, trills, and whistles.
Starlings are what’s known as an exotic invasive species. This means not only did they come from elsewhere–Europe in this case–but they’re invading ecosystems, often to the detriment of the native species there. The story is that they were brought over from Europe in 1890 by a man named Eugene Scheiffelin who aspired to bring every bird mentioned in Shakespere’s works to America. Starlings are highly gregarious and can live in forests as well as cities, so they fit right in as the cities grew up around them. Unfortunately for the more timid native cavity nesting species, this prolific outpouring of starlings–which also dwell in cavities– meant fierce competition for species including bluebirds and woodpeckers.
Also in the cities are the ever-present pigeon, rock dove, rock pigeon–whatever they’re calling it these days. Coming in an array of color combinations, these fat birds are getting fatter along city sidewalks. Taking wing at the absolute, very last minute, you may have very well tripped on one already. With an inflatable neck pouch, the male will puff up and follow a disinterested female around, pushing his breast right upon her until she gets sick of it all and flies away. You’ve probably heard the low cooing emitting from the eaves of a rowhouse, under a bridge or on steeply sloped roofs. These plump birds with their varied color forms and herd behavior can attract a lot of attention with those loudly flapping wings. Urban raptors find them to be a hearty mid-air meal. Some people may think they’re ratty, but these birds are a big part of this urban ecosystem that we call home.
On the wilder side, you have the chimney swifts. If you keep an ear pricked for their twitterings above your head, particularly in the spring when they return from their southern wintering grounds, you might have a fleeting view of these aerial wizards. From below, these sleek fliers are very small and their bodies and wings form the shape of a crescent moon, with bodies in the shape of a cigar. On the wing throughout the entire day, these swifts dip and tumble through the air, weaving amongst one another, always all a’twitter. Chimney swifts hardly land. They are part of the order apodiformes which means “no feet” so, while they do have feet, they don’t use them often. At night, they swoop down into a chimney to bed down. And, since they’re unable to perch, they use their toenails to hang off the chimney wall, shoulder to shoulder in the safety of the shared shelter.
While I haven’t viewed this particular species of swifts in their nightly descent into the depths of a chimney stack, I have had the privilege of viewing the same feat conducted by vaux’s swifts in Eugene, Oregon, tumbling en mass into the tall, brick chimney stack on top of the historic brick building where I got my master’s.
Onward. So, contrary to the popular belief that the first sight of an American Robin indicates the harbinging of spring, they actually can be found in the city all year. Nevertheless, their song certainlydoes welcome the warmer months as they begin to pair up for the nesting season. Crisp, clear notes tumble over one another as this bird sings from the higher branches alongside the sidewalks. Their rush-and-stop foraging behavior, wing-flicking and upright, jaunty posture can be seen as you walk by a particularly nicely landscaped garden, patch of mulch or any lawn they might find within the city limits. Grubs and worms are their food of choice in the summertime and fruit in the fall and early winter.
Ah, the ubiquitous crow. Always up to something. They’re not looked upon fondly by other birds, particularly when they’re flying off with some bird’s egg in their maw (you’ll undoubtedly witness an irate mockingbird in hot pursuit). It may surprise you to know that the crows you’ll happen across aren’t necessarily always the same species. On the eastern coast of the United States we have both American Crows and Fish Crows. With their almost pitiful “gah”, the smaller fish crows don’t have the powerful “CAW!” of their American cousin. You may have had the pleasure of finding the trash you put on the curb torn into and picked at, as crows are very much generalists when it comes to diet preference, hence why they do so well around humans. As the summer winds down into fall, be sure to look for these large black birds collecting into large flocks, a river of bird moving across the sky, heading nightly to their huge communal winter roost in a grove of trees.
There are yet more birds that we can find around the city: Canada geese, osprey, various species of gulls around fountains, water features and parking lots, black and white-checkered woodpeckers forage above the sidewalks in trees, including the middle of downtown. Occasionally you’ll hear a bluejay or cardinal. I saw a nesting pair of kingbirds on the corner of the National Mall and chipping sparrows love the grassy expanses it offers. And that’s not even including the fabulous urban raptors that do so well around our cities that offer up a feathered buffet for them. You can see a variety of hawks, cliff-nesting peregrine falcons take advantage of the high rises (not in DC which lacks high-rises, but I did enjoy watching a pair that nested on a building adjacent to the Sierra Club headquarters where I worked in San Francisco) and nesting bald eagles garner attention along rivers and city parks. Read more about my take on the urban raptor experience here.
Birds in the city are often overlooked (unless you’re ducking as a flock of pigeons hurtle toward you) but they really can give you a sense of the tenacity of nature. Humans have created an unnatural ecosystem and certain birds have adapted and survived. They may be grimy, but that’s not their fault. They’re also beautiful, their plumage, their flight, their songs, we’re lucky to have them here. Some may think we’d be better off without them, but if that were the case, I’m sure I wouldn’t be the only one to notice.
Tags: birds, birdwatching, cities, crows, murmuration, pigeons, starlings, urban, wildlife