Every time I hear someone disclose that they are “bored,” I thank my lucky stars that I’m a birdwatcher. While I do know what it means to be bored, having been pinned in a corner at parties by individuals who search for a subject you know nothing about and then expound upon it, ad nauseam, I cannot recall a single time when, left to my own devices, I was bored. As long as birds exist and I have the latitude to engage them, life is a sensory and intellectual feast.
When Maurice Broun was dying of cancer, he birded from his hospital bed. His last bird, as I recall, was Black-crowned Night-Heron. Quok. Inspired by his example, while I was in the ICU following a wee bit of a stroke, I asked to have the bed moved closer to the window, an exercise that was sanctioned by Penn’s head of neurology but necessitated the impromptu re-arrangement of lots of heavy life-saving equipment, a burdensome task that fell to the nursing staff, whose dance card was already full keeping patients alive.
Situated as I was in downtown Philadelphia in early March, I don’t recall tallying anything more uncommon than Rock Pigeon and House Sparrow. Which was fine. I’m an equal-opportunity birder. Anything with feathers is my stock in trade.
Admiration for lowly birds
Growing up without other birders, except my childhood playmate Donna, I never learned to be disdainful of House Sparrows because of their non-native status. In fact, Donna and I spent hours watching the busy comings and goings of the adult House Sparrows that had colonized the ivy-covered chimney of her house. It was amazing to see how much nesting material the birds could hoist into the air, and their burbled churps were as much a part of summer as the song of American Robin and the jingle of the Good Humor ice cream truck.
My admiration for the lowly “Black-throated Brown” has only been heightened by multiple trips across country. At desert rest areas astride southwestern interstates, the only birds to be counted upon are House Sparrow and Common Raven. House Sparrow has managed to colonize just about every urban center on the planet (with our help), and the raven’s latitudinal range extends from the Arctic to the Sahara. Hardy birds.
Thanks to House Sparrows, kids growing up in the Bronx and downtown L.A. can engage birds as fully as kids growing up in rural America. House Sparrows do everything other birds do: court, mate, raise young, dust bathe, defend feeding areas, and flock. Before the introduction of automobiles, House Sparrows were even more numerous in urban areas than today, their populations sustained by the undigested oats embedded in draft horse droppings. But as cars increased and droppings diminished, the hardy street urchins learned that processed grain in the form of discarded donuts and pizza crust was, also, grist for this cosmopolitan granivore’s mill. So, here’s to House Sparrow: like many Americans, immigrants to these shores and an addition that has enriched, not diminished, our avifauna.
That sound you are hearing is the conjoined wail of bluebird-trail managers and Purple Martin landlords who wage a constant battle with the usurping likes of House Sparrows. But however much you like bluebirds and other cavity nesters, realize that despite their proliferation, House Sparrows have not supplanted a single native species. They have simply expanded to occupy habitats we have modified to suit our needs.
Inner-city streets, desert rest areas, feedlots, and ivy-covered walls. As I write this line, House Sparrows are canvassing the concrete next to my in-laws’ pool. No native species has shown itself to be as industrious or determined.
Pigeons on the cover
As for Rock Pigeon, my experience has been more tempered. They were not part of the suburban environs of my youth. To get them on my year list in my pre-teen years necessitated a ride to more urban environments. Now, in our hometown of Mauricetown, New Jersey, Rock Pigeon is a neighbor. From their perch on the Methodist church, they can see when we fill the feeders and gather below to forage on waste grain swept aside by native species.
I haven’t always been nonplussed about Rock Pigeon. When Houghton Mifflin reprinted Linda’s and my book The Feather Quest, the original design called for Audubon’s Blue Jay art on the cover. Imagine my chagrin when an advanced copy reached my desk boasting a flock of pigeons.
Piqued by the unannounced change, I called then-editor Harry Foster, who advised that the layout artist had concluded that a photo of birds in flight was the stronger image. It was and remains the cover photo on that reprint. And why not? Pigeons are, after all, as much a part of North America’s bird riches as any other creature wearing feathers and much more widespread than Blue Jay — and they’re superior aerialists. Ask any city-dwelling Peregrine, whose diet is mostly Rock Pigeon, a big meaty bird fit for a falcon. And mark my words: In short order, you are going to find more and more Cooper’s Hawks infiltrating urban environs, drawn to the bounty of Rock Pigeons.
So, no, I am never bored, not even in big cities where adaptive bird species thrive.
This article was first published in the November/December 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.