Runner-up

Two male turkeys audition but fail to impress the judge (Photo: Teddy Llovet, Creative Commons license)

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[An alternative to the trussed and roasted turkeys featured as the unlucky guests of honor on tables across the U.S. this week, reprinted from November 2012.]

I don’t know what American grade school kids are being taught these days—I left Oakville Elementary a couple of decades ago (okay, fine—several decades ago) and since I haven’t had kids of my own I don’t have access to 21st century homework assignments. But I’ll go out on a limb here and bet that most of them know the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) won the 1782 version of American Idol, and that it did so by edging out celebrity judge Benjamin Franklin’s favorite contestant, the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).

That long-ago contest had little in common with the popular modern day version of reality TV. For one thing, neither bird has great pipes. Citizens were never asked to call or text in their votes. Also, the bald eagle has held on to national fame longer than fellow white-headed winner Taylor Hicks, while the turkey hasn’t exactly proven the voters wrong by, say, winning an Academy Award, Jennifer Hudson-style.

On the other hand, we don’t set aside a day each November (or any month, for that matter) on which the eagle takes center stage.  So in honor of Thanksgiving, I’d like to briefly sing the praises of the runner-up… and not just as the star performer at a holiday dinner.

Shortly after Congress immortalized the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States, Franklin shared his disappointment and misgivings over their choice in a letter to his daughter. Given the sparse pelt on his own pate, one might expect ol’ Ben would view the bald eagle as a kindred spirit, or at least harbor a bit of sympathy. Instead, his criticism was as harsh as any doled out by Simon Cowell, describing our new national symbol as “a Bird of bad moral character” who “does not get his Living honestly,” preferring to sup on rotting fish or, worse yet, stealing fresh seafood from more industrious raptors like the osprey (Pandion haliaetus). What’s more, Ben argued the eagle is cowardly, evidenced by how easily it can be driven away by much smaller birds defending their nests and offspring. Not exactly the role model image our fledgling country hoped to cultivate.

The turkey, according to Franklin, is “in Comparison a much more respectable bird,” a “true original Native of America” and a “Bird of Courage” who “would not hesitate to attack” any invader and defend his home turf.

This description might not square with your expectations after years of holiday stories featuring dim-witted, less than inspiring  Butterballs-to-be but the domestic turkey is but a pale and passive imitation of the real-deal.

Wild tom turkeys (as the males are called) will most definitely defend their breeding territory against potential rivals. Large and heavy, they are unexpectedly agile flyers, aggressive fighters, social, sometimes playful, intelligent, and adaptive.  To my knowledge they’ve never been accused of theft or caught dining on carrion (their omnivorous diet consists primarily of acorns and other nuts, seeds, fruit, buds and leaves, insects and the occasional small reptile or amphibian).

As far as moral character goes… well, you know rock stars. Toms strut their stuff in a flamboyant palette of iridescent red, green, purple, copper, bronze, and gold feathers worthy of Adam Lambert. No piercings or tattoos, but oozing cool with a Beat-worthy statement beard of stiff bristles starting just above the wishbone, wattles (flesh hanging from the head and/or neck), caruncles (fleshy growths on the head), snoods (long fleshy object draped across a tom’s beak), spurs and other body art. Their ladies, in keeping with general avian fashion trends, tend to be more conservatively dressed but they can strut like a runway model  when warranted, complete with long legs and outlandish makeup. Out of the spotlight, turkey hens are attentive mothers to their precocial offspring, in contrast to the menfolk, who are polygamous absentee fathers.

(Male bald eagles, it must be said, are actively involved in their children’s upbringing; given his own reputation, Ben might have been well served to heed the old saying about people who live in glass houses before he cast the first stone.)

Like the bald eagle, wild turkeys experienced a perilous decline in their numbers during in the last century, due to overhunting and habitat loss (rather than DDT exposure, as was the case for so many of our birds of prey).  Game agencies took action to protect the species and have been successful in helping the population rebound. So much so, in fact, that turkeys have not only returned to rural fields, pastures, and woodlands but have begun to tour in many major metropolitan areas as well.  In some parts of the country spotting a flock of wild turkeys foraging near a highway, hanging out downtown, or feasting at a backyard bird feeder is no longer a novelty.

That means a growing number of Americans now have a ticket to see  this national treasure up close and personal more than once a year, and at venues other than a serving platter.

Life is better with a little Next-Door Nature—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!

 

© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Teddy Llovet (cover); keeva999 (turkey in flight); Mic Stolz (plumage); Peter Patau (men).

Scary-smart

Halloween raven

Ravens populate the mythology of many cultures throughout the northern hemisphere  (Photo: John North/iStockphoto, Used with permission).

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[I’ve been frighteningly busy throughout the month of October, so I’m reprinting this post from October 2011 in honor of Halloween, and ravens.]

Fright-night is lurking just around the corner. Frankensteins, mummies, zombies, ghosts, and golems will soon leave their lairs to roam freely through our cities and suburbs, searching for something to eat. Butterfingers, Baby Ruths, and brains—oh my!

poe's ravenReanimated but mindless creatures? HA! They don’t scare me. It’s the ones I’m not so sure I could outsmart that give me nightmares. You know… Hannibal Lecter. Patrick Bateman. Brilliant but mad scientists. Shape-shifters, tricksters, and ravens.

That’s right—it’s Poe’s gently rapping, tap-tap-tapping apparition, the common raven (Corvus corax), that keeps me up at night. Similar in appearance to the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), but larger and more slender with a wedge-shaped tail and a heavy, arched beak—a santoku blade to the crow’s steak knife.

Now, understand that I’m not implying they’re evil. It’s just that there’s definitely something spooky about a massive, inky bird with a genius IQ and an inclination towards… exploiting opportunities, shall we say.  Humans have long considered these birds both charismatic and ominous, fascinating and frightening. Spread across much of the northern hemisphere, ravens have stained the mythologies of native people Valkyries by Emil Doeplerthroughout their range. In Scandinavian cultures, this feathered carrion-eater was associated with war, blood, and corpses and their Valkyries—goddesses who decide which warriors will die in battle and who will be granted an afterlife in Valhalla—often were accompanied by ravens. The Celts made a connection between ravens, war, and death as well; true to their inherent interest in metaphysics, though, they also credited these birds with the ability to see the future, to move freely between worlds and, oddly enough, to play chess (rook is the common name for Corvus frugilegus, a European member of the raven-crow clan).

Mythology aside, ravens have been judged by humans to be among the smartest of all birds. That may be damning them with too-faint praise. Various studies in and out of the lab have tested researchers intelligence and creativity while they attempt to test the raven’s problem-solving skills. The jury’s still out on which party finds these efforts more enlightening. Ravens have been observed applying an understanding of cause-and-effect to the problem of filling an empty stomach—they learn to associate the sound of a rifle being fired during hunting season with the presence of a carcass (similarly loud sounds are ignored). Not content to simply wait for a scavenging opportunity, ravens will work in pairs or even larger teams, using a distraction strategy to separate adult birds and mammals from their vulnerable children, to gang up on prey too large for a single bird to overwhelm, or to defend resources and territory against neighboring gangs. Nature, it has been said, is red in tooth and claw, and ravens are definitely a part of that gruesome heritage.

There’s more to the story, of course—isn’t there always? Ravens are a threat to any number of wild youngsters, but they are devoted parents to their own offspring, who remain dependent for longer than many other bird babies. Both male and female are involved in parenting and are thought to mate for life.

Ravens aren’t as social as crows—they would prefer to go trick-or-treating alone or in pairs than in a mob—but they aren’t loners in the stereotypical serial-killer sense. During winter months they will form a flock, a.k.a. an unkindness (who comes up with these names?!), to find food during daylight hours and stay warm at night.

raven playing with the windOne very appealing characteristic is their sense of fun. Ravens are audacious, acrobatic flyers who take obvious pleasure in practicing dives, rolls, and loops, or even flying upside-down. I’ve personally watched ravens play with the wind blasting up the face of a cliff or a tall building, a sight that never fails to make me long for wings of my own. A favorite game, particularly among young ravens, involves climbing high in the sky holding some object, dropping it, and then racing gravity to catch it midair.

I also learned that here in North America, ravens have been assigned a very different mythological role than in Europe. Pacific Northwest legend has it they take a kind of noblesse oblige attitude toward the human race. Grandfather Raven is portrayed as a devilish philanthrope, a Robin Hood figure who stole the Sun, Moon, Stars, Fire, Water, and even Salmon from various deities and gave them to the people. How would you like to find those treats in your goody bag on Halloween?

Perhaps ravens, like so many scapegoats before them, have been unfairly vilified.  We should never forget that the job of predators and scavengers is thankless, but a crucial component of healthy ecosystems. French author Andre Gide may have said it best, “There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.” I think it’s time to change my thinking.  From this point forward, I’m going to dream of playful, benevolent ravens and be frightened nevermore.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to Ian Burt (Poe’s raven) and Ingrid Taylar (raven playing on the wind) for making their photographs available via a Creative Commons license. Walkyrien by Emil Doepler is in the public domain.

Waste management

American black vulture

American black vultures work hard to keep the environment clean  (Photo: Rusty One, CCL)

[This post was originally published on Apr 9, 2011.]

The air wasn’t filled with the thumping of Rubbermaid® recycling bins or the metallic squeal of a dumpster being lifted high above a clumsy automated truck, so the last thing I expected to see when I came around the corner was three members of the neighborhood waste management team standing in the middle of the street.

On their lunch break, no less.

Then again, if you’re an American black vulture (Coragyps atratus), feasting on freshly squished squirrel is one of your duties as a sanitation worker.

Rather than rummaging down streets and alleyways, black vultures take to the skies. Catching a thermal updraft to soar at altitudes that provide sweeping views of the landscape below, they rely more on excellent eyesight than a keen sense of smell to do their job.

It’s all for one and one for all in black vulture communities; when one bird hones in on area in need of garbage collection and begins to descend, the rest of the scrap-heap squadron will be on her tail, ready to pitch in.

black vultureEvery clean-up crew needs a uniform—something that hides stains while providing a little protection from the elements. Baggy-butt coveralls? No, thank you! Feathers provide insulation from both hot and cold weather, and how can you beat basic black for low maintenance and classic sophistication? Add to that a generous cowl neckline that can be pulled up to cover a bare pate, or down when it’s time to dive into a decontamination chore head first, and you’ve got a versatile and hygienic fashion statement.

They might not strike you as endearing creatures, but I have a soft spot for these scavengers. Back when I had wildlife rehabilitation permits and had an active practice, I received a black vulture nestling from the Texas A&M veterinary college. The little fellow reminded me of an old boyfriend—never mind why—so I christened him accordingly and, unbeknownst to my landlord, turned the kitchen of my one-bedroom apartment into a vulture nursery. These birds don’t waste time building nests, preferring to lay and incubate their eggs on bare ground, so my vinyl flooring must have seemed reassuringly familiar to the youngster.

Once he was stabilized, I began to look for a rehabilitator elsewhere in the state who worked with this species. Blacks are more social than turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), our other North American vulture species, so finding some siblings for this fuzzy beige only child was a high priority. Unfortunately—or maybe it’s a good thing—vulture chicks aren’t common patients at wildlife rehabilitation centers. I don’t know if this is because these birds have small families, or because they are cautious parents who raise their young out of the spotlight of human activity, or maybe people are simply less likely to rescue a bird they think of as a harbinger of death.

As a result, it took several months to find a new foster parent. During that intervening time, I learned there’s more to these dumpster-divers than meets the eye. For example, I discovered that vulture chicks investigate everything with an endlessly curious beak. Standing barefoot in front of the open refrigerator door, before long I’d look down and see that wrinkled black head delicately and determinedly shredding the cardboard soft drink carton, or I would feel a tickle and look down to see him attempting to pluck a loose thread from the hem of my pajamas. I would smile, charmed right down to the tip of my big toe, only to notice the chick was trying to exfoliate said toe, one hair at a time.

Eventually, it dawned on me that he was using me and my toe to practice for the day when he would apply that clever, hooked bill and tear open a carcass like an overstuffed Hefty® Cinch SAK, and suddenly a bedtime snack didn’t seem all that appealing. They give you nightmares, you know.

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to Gregory Moine and Anita363, who made their photos available for use under a Creative Commons license, allowing us to illustrate the black vulture’s feathered cowl-neck attire. Rusty One’s photographer’s original photo can be seen here.

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Still Life

Great blue heron

The great blue heron is a patient angler.

[I’m working on new essays this week so I hope you’ll enjoy this reposting from March 26, 2011]

Racing past a nearby pond, I mistook the bird for an art installation.

I realized my error quickly enough once I downshifted. Then again, there’s just something so painterly about a great blue heron (Ardea herodias). The graceful, sinuous lines; the aqueous blues and grays; the plumage, evocative as a brush stroke. The unhurried disposition that creates a pose of every posture. The stippled scene was realism and impressionism all at once.

Slow, prehistoric wing-beats call to mind the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira. The great blue is one of the more easily identified birds in flight, partly due to its size—a 6-foot wingspan is hard to miss—and partly because of its silhouette, reminiscent of a textbook pterodactyl: neck folded back on itself in a compressed S; a contrail of long, slender legs.

Statuesque as an adult, the stalk-and-strike hunter spends much of its life standing still as stone.  Balanced as bronze armature, this is a kinetic sculpture that moves imperceptibly, and yet, as you watch… you can feel the potential energy of that cocked, cursive neck building in your own musculature, grown taut with anticipation.

Patience personified…

waiting…

waiting…

waiting…

and THEN

…the spring detonates with blinding speed, blasting the javelin bill through the water’s surface and into the target!

The spear is dragged back from the depths as a squirming fish-kabob. Or, perhaps, a canapé of frog, salamander, crab, or crawdad… would you prefer a vole, garter snake, duckling, or a dragonfly. Heron menus include far more than seafood.

On occasion, large prey will be consumed bite by bite. A tedious process and, as every angler knows, if you want to increase your catch you need to keep your line in the water. So, more often, there’s a flip of feathered head and neck, then dinner is swallowed whole.

Or not. That narrow neck can accommodate a surprisingly wide load, but in the hurry to put the catch in the creel, herons have been known to choke on a too-big meal.

 

 

I know the feeling. I gobble down the items on my to-do list—even tasks like “take a walk.” I channel surf when I should take the time to savor the canvas before me. Taking a deep breath, I tried to quiet my mind, and settled down to watch… and wait.  Dining, fishing, or appreciating a living, breathing work of art—these are pastimes that can’t be rushed.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: S Pisharam and Len Blumin. Blumin, who is responsible for the “catfish dinner” series, reports that in this particular heron’s eyes were NOT bigger than its stomach, or its throat, and it lived to fish another day. © 2011 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Oddly Normal

I don’t live far from the eclipse’s Path of Totality, but I decided to stay put just the same. I didn’t even order eclipse glasses. I know there will be plenty of great video to watch throughout the day, and since my sweetheart is a talented professional videographer, I feel like I’ve got that angle covered.  I want to focus on what’s going on down under, here on Earth.

In anticipation, I’ve been reading stories about how the event will impact wildlife. Every single one of these reports has focused on the “strange” animal behavior we can expect to witness as the day goes dark… and I find that very strange indeed.

What these experts are calling odd is considered completely normal activity when it happens each evening. And from the descriptions I’ve read about what to expect, assuming night is nigh would be a perfectly reasonable assumption for any creature—human or non-human—who doesn’t have a television or an Internet connection and, therefore, doesn’t know that the sun will be playing hide-and-seek with the moon for a little while today.

Humans tend to be less familiar with nocturnal species than the ones who are active during regular business hours. I think the eclipse is going to offer a chance to get to know our neighbors who work the night shift… kind of like a rerun of the National Night Out that took place earlier this month.

As the light begins to dim, creatures who are active during the day may start their usual bedtime routines.  Some diurnal birds will sing one last serenade to the daylight as faux-evening falls…

…some will hurry back to nests of eggs or chicks…

…others will congregate for mutual protection, as they do at the end of every day.

Birds who love the night life will wake, possibly feeling less than rested but still ready to boogie in search of an early breakfast (or late dinner, depending how you look at it).

Some wild mammals are active and visible during the day, including a fair number of rodents such as tree squirrels, groundhogs, prairie dogs, and chipmunks. I’m expecting the eclipse to be a great time to see mammals who are usually waking up just as I’m starting to wind down…

Insect musicians will surely want to set the mood with a tune or two.

Fireflies know a little night music calls for romantic lighting…

…and amphibians aren’t about to let the invertebrates steal the limelight!

As the skies brighten we’re also likely to have a second dawn chorus… but without needing to get up before sunrise! So don’t despair just because the eclipse will pass your part of North America by, or because you don’t know how to make and use a pin-hole camera (even after you Google’d instructions). There should be some amazing wildlife sights to see, right here on good ol’ terra firma.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Eric Kilby, Dan Dzurisin, Ingrid Taylar, Pat Gaines, Rachel Kramer, Will WilsonTony Oldroyd, Michael Eisen, Elizabeth Nicodemus, USFWStsaiian, David Huth, and Ingrid Taylar.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Lonesome Doves

It’s a fine world, though rich in hardships at times. ~ Larry McMurtry

There’s a sweetness in the lament of a mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) that makes the sorrow bearable, and believable. Theirs isn’t an pop tune about a hookup with a hook, or a power ballad tale of infatuation, thrill, and transitory heartbreak. When mourning doves call I hear a country-western melody about spacious, isolated landscapes and complicated lives composed of joy and calamity, love and betrayal, not to mention good and evil that can’t be easily differentiated by the color of someone’s hat.

Country music has had it’s share of singers who could wail with convincing anguish on stage, then party ’til the cows came home once the show was over… so I have to wonder if the mourning dove’s high lonesome yodel —coo-OO, COO, coo — is simply part of the act. After all, that grievous angel cry is replaced by a jaunty whistle of wings every time they launch skyward.

Plus, doves are rarely alone and don’t seem to have much time in their lives to feel lonely. The whole clan is known to grow up fast (reaching sexual maturity at about 85 days old) and then pair up into monogamous ’til-death-do-we-part couples who take the directive to be fruitful and multiply seriously… as in up to twelve chicks in a single season serious (six broods of two chicks each). Both Mom and Dad are doting, active parents who share grocery shopping and child care equally, rarely leaving their babes unsupervised by at least one adult at all times.

The end of the lovey-dovey breeding season shouldn’t bring on the lonesome blues either, because that’s when the community flocks together in a big way. They go on group picnics, gobbling up seed in open fields or from the ground beneath backyard feeders until their crops are full, then settle onto fences, or walls, or telephone wires to digest the meal and the days events. They go drinking together, although for doves that means sipping water from puddles and bird baths rather than throwing back with Jose Quervo at the neighborhood saloon.

The community even sleeps together— literally, not euphemistically — roosting in trees and other protected areas. Comforted by the safety of numbers, they’ll drop their heads comfortably between raised shoulders rather than tucking in beneath a wing or over the back as so many other birds do.

Despite all the social network support, there is a darker side to the life of a mourning dove that may explain their doleful song — they often end up on the wrong end of a gun. Mourning doves are abundant, with a population estimated to be comprised of nearly 500 million individuals, but they are classified as a game bird and are the most frequently hunted species in North America. As many as 70 million are shot by hunters each year. Those who dodge the bullet still have to contend with the threat of lead poisoning from shot picked up from the ground while feeding.

Despite what their name implies, though, when one of these doves becomes a widow or widower they don’t spend a lot of time in Brokenheartsville bemoaning their newly-single status. In fact, they pair up again pdq. After all, ya can’t be fruitful all by your lonesome.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Sarah Richter, Chuck Roberts, George Thomas, Tina :0), Edward Peters, and Patty Myrick.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Multi-Tasker

I found a blue jay feather this morning while I was out walking my dog, Dash. That isn’t remarkable — jays are a common species here, and because the color blue is relatively scarce in the natural environment (except for the sky) it’s eye-catching. I’ve started an informal collection, compiled on some shelves near my front door. I admire them on a semi-regular basis while running a Swiffer™ over household surfaces, and when I have to pick them up off of the floor because I’m cleaning like it’s a timed event.

As I ambled along, spinning the feather between my thumb and forefinger, I could feel it lift at the slightest breeze, attempting to return to the sky. I started thinking about the versatility of this keratin assemblage, this trinket both delicate and durable, this multi-tasker extraordinaire.

I’m well aware that researchers say multi-tasking is a myth, at least when it comes to the human brain. We only think we’re doing several things at once, the scientists tell us; actually, we’re just toggling back and forth from one thing to another, which reduces our mental efficiency and even lowers (temporarily) our IQ.  I’m mostly convinced by these studies but, full disclosure, neuroscience isn’t my field so I’m only familiar with what’s summarized and reported by the media… and by “media” I mean NPR. In light of all that has been reported, though, I find it even more fascinating and frustrating that handling more than one task is trivial for so many other, less admired, anatomical features. Wouldn’t you expect our much-lauded gray matter to be every bit as masterful at multi-tasking as, say, a feather?

Think about it…

First of all, feathers allow birds to fly — a feat humans have still not managed to accomplish, even though we reassure each other constantly that we have the largest, most amazingly intelligent brains on Earth (clearly, though, ours is not the most self-confident computer on the planet).

Now, before you think I’ve somehow overlooked the fact that thousands of human beings are flying from one global location to another all day, every day, and have been doing so for quite some time, let me interject that human beings have, without question, figured out how to make machines fly (with the aid of metallurgy and fossil fuels, of course). But we have never, not once, jumped up from the ground or launched from a tree branch to flap off into the wild blue yonder. Superman doesn’t count because he isn’t human, and wing-suits don’t count either because that’s gliding, not flying. Humans ride, birds fly, and they do it by flapping feather-covered arms, using renewable energy sources like insects, berries, seeds, and sugar water.

Next, consider that feathers also provide thermal insulation. This should come as no surprise because people use bird feathers to keep warm, too. We stuff clouds of down and feathers in-between layers of rip-stop polyester made from recycled plastic water bottles to manufacture vests and parkas. Then we slip on the garment, zip up the front, and head out into the elements to do some birdwatching.

Birds can waterproof their feathers with bio-oils stored in a convenient uropygial/preen gland at the base of their tail. This is handy because, having allocated their arms to flying, they can’t hold a spray can of Scotchgard™. Nor are they able to use hammers, saws, and other tools to build a roof overhead that will shield them from rain, sleet, and snow, or to build a boat when they want to go fishing.

But wait— there’s more! Bet you didn’t know that feathers are also an effective communication device. See, humans use an broad assortment of products, including designer label clothing, team-sponsored gear, our vehicles, digital devices, and jewelry to make nonverbal announcements about our group affiliations and availability.

Birds accomplish the same thing using their birthday feather-suits. The colors and patterns they wear say more than any Tinder profile or list of Who’s Who ever could.  Female birds assess a suitor’s sartorial presentation to determine if he’s her type, and male birds parade their plumage to show the ladies they’ve got the goods to be a quality life-partner. Or maybe just a handsome hookup, depending on how the species swings. Those same feathers can be used to warn a trespasser that this territory has been claimed, or warn a romantic competitor to back off.

Kind of puts the old uni-tasking cerebral cortex to shame, don’t you think? And all this time I’ve been under the impression that “featherhead” was an insult.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: bagaball, Richard Hurd, Jonathan Fox, Ingrid Taylar, and Putneypics.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

British Invasion (Part I)

The British may have lost North America but their native house sparrows have successfully colonized the continent.

The British lost North America but English house sparrows have colonized the continent.

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It seems to happen once each century. In 1775 the Redcoats showed up in Boston, the Beatles made a big splash about 200 years later in 1964, and in the sweet-spot in-between the House Sparrows (Passer domestics) arrived.
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It’s difficult to believe, given current controversies and political grandstanding, but for a long time America had a very open-door immigration policy that allowed almost anyone—human and non-human—hassle-free entry. For example, no one batted an eye when my paternal ancestors washed up here after being kicked out of Scotland during the Highland Clearance to make room for sheep… but I digress. In the 1850s, when Brooklyn Institute Director Nicholas Pike purchased 8 pairs of house sparrows from England he didn’t have to sneak the birds past a Customs agent—the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) hadn’t been created yet and wouldn’t be for over 100 years. Nor did Pike need permission from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to release the birds. It didn’t exist.
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Introducing these Old World sparrows to North America was not done on a whim. Some sources suggest the birds were imported to control a serious canker-worm (Alsophila pometaria or Paleacrita vernata) infestation threatening New York City’s trees—a somewhat misguided notion since house sparrows are granivores (seed-eaters), not insectivores, although they do feed insects to their nestlings.  Pike reportedly paid $200 for the pairs’ passage across the Atlantic, which may not sound like much but according to one relative-value calculator it’s equivalent to $5,000 today.
.feeding the sparrows
Like many immigrants before them those first settlers didn’t do all that well in their new home. Not dissuaded, Pike purchased another 25 pairs the following year and released them along the East River. This cohort proved hardier, or perhaps more adaptable. Another 100 pairs were ordered in 1853 and released at the Greenwood Cemetery, Central Park, Union Square Park, and Madison Square Park. Americans have a history of Anglophilia so it should come as no surprise that soon the former colonies were all a-twitter about these chatty, cheerfully social birds.
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male house sparrow by Eric Bégin, CCLHouse sparrows aren’t closely related to native North American sparrows and you can see it in their physique—they’re a bit heavier, with a deeper chest, a more rounded head, shorter tail, and a less delicate bill. Six inches (15 cm) long from beak to tail-tip, and weighing in at about 1.4 oz (40 g), the male house sparrow cuts a dashing but not flashy figure; he’s British, don’t forget, and all business. Bright blues, greens, and yellows are not his cup of tea; rather, he wears a neutral palette of black, gray, and chestnut, with a touch of white to sharpen up the entire female house sparrow2ensemble. Female fashion preferences are appropriately tweedy: tawny-brown with darker striping on top, oatmeal-tan or gray below. More Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson than David Bowie and Amy Winehouse, nonetheless, house sparrows were a trending novelty that went viral.
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Entrepreneurs recognized a market opportunity and became breeders.  Citizens in Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania all followed Pike’s lead, and by 1870 this pioneering species had spread south to Texas, north to Montreal, and past the Mississippi River to Iowa. A West Coast population was established with releases in California (1871-1872) and Utah (1873-1874), and in the subsequent decade house sparrows expanded their range from less than 1,200 mi2 to over 500,000 mi2. By the turn of the 20th century the space between eastern and western fronts had nearly filled.
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Why have house sparrows thrived while other species—including some natives—have failed? Here are the keys to making it in America:
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Get lucky.  House sparrows couldn’t have wished for better timing to facilitate their successful acclimation. Steam and internal combustion engines were coming on strong but horses and cattle were still the primary means of facilitated transportation. Working herbivores need more calories than grass and hay alone can provide so corn, barley, oats, wheat, and rice are common additions to the diet. Hoof-stock “exhaust” has a fair amount of undigested “fuel” and resilient city sparrows weren’t picky about where they got their vittles. Additionally, urbanites raised livestock and poultry and a small bird could easily slip in and out of pens and stables to pinch a bite or two. Enterprising sparrows even hitched rides on those new-fangled locomotives and their boxcars filled with grain.
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Grow up fast, breed early and often.  House sparrows eggs hatch after 10-16 days of incubation, nestlings fledge at 14-15 days old, are independent 7-10 days later. One study suggests they may reach sexual maturity as early as 4 months of age—time to find a mate and get busy! Females produce 2-5 clutches of 3-7 chicks per breeding season; that’s an average of 20 chicks per season, per breeding pair. Do the math and there’s your answer.
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Stand up for yourself and your kin.  House sparrows will form loose nesting colonies, are strongly territorial, and will aggressively defend nest sites and feeders. They’ll attack both intruders and potential intruders, and have been known to destroy the eggs and nestlings of competitor species.
. Be smart, adaptable, and adventurous.  Many bird species follow a strict set of guidelines when it comes to choosing where to raise a family.  Sparrows, on the other hand, sparrow nest by gingiber, CCL are willing to at least consider nearly any property when scouting for real estate. You’ll find them nesting in a wide range of locations—nest boxes and tree cavities, of course, but also signs, architectural features, drain pipes, dryer vents, and anywhere else that offers a large enough entrance.  When a potential nesting site has been identified they’ll use every means at their disposal to make it work.  They can even learn how to trip automated door sensors to access food and shelter from the elements and predators. When young house sparrows are old enough to leave the nest they’ll readily disperse 5 miles or more to find new feeding and nesting areas and quickly learn how to claim and exploit available resources.
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Have friends in high places. If you’re a wild thing, having H. sapiens on your side is the equivalent of a royal patronage. In the mid-19th century people trapped house sparrows from one place and released them into new territory cleared of predators and outfitted with nesting boxes.  That, my friends, is what’s called “choosing sides.” Is it any wonder house sparrows are now found in all 48 contiguous states and Hawaii’i (where they were introduced from New Zealand in 1871)? The kindness of human strangers has also allowed P. domesticus to claim much of Canada, all of Central America, most of South America, southern Africa, and eastern Australia.
dark green = natural range light green = introduced range

dark green = natural range     light green = introduced range

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I’m sure you can guess how this story goes, though. It’s been played out countless times in the media—print, broadcast, and social.  First they love you, then they love to hate you.  Americans adore a winner but as any reality TV star can attest, get too successful and fans will take equal pleasure in watching, sometimes facilitating, your fall from grace.
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Even as the house sparrow fad continued to grow, some conservation-minded folk had begun to notice the immigrants were not assimilating as hoped, or following local customs and expectations. Before long, civic leaders had deemed house sparrow nests “unsightly.” Their droppings were blamed for “besmirched” buildings and sidewalks.  They were tagged as thieves who pilfered valuable grain from honest, hard-working farmers. Worse yet, the foreigners were observed being downright inhospitable to the native avian community, including valuable insect-eaters. The nerve of those ungrateful little upstarts!!
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sparrow trap (Albert F. Siepert, Project Gutenberg License)Guides for trapping, shooting, and poisoning the birds were distributed free of charge. By 1883, state legislators in Indiana had declared the house sparrow an outlaw who should be killed on sight. Five years later, Illinois and Michigan had established a small bounty on “English” sparrows and children scrambled to exchange dead birds for cash to buy candy.
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Never mind the fact that human development was having at least as great an impact on native bird species as the house sparrow we had intentionally loosed upon the landscape. Forget that the effects of trapping and poisoning are rarely limited to the intended target species. Ignore the lack of conservation legislation that allowed “market hunting” to bring dozens of wild bird populations to the brink of extinction. The public was frightened and angry about the changes in their communities wrought by industrialization and human migration. Scapegoats were needed to pay the piper for society’s sins and transgressions.
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Many individual house sparrow were killed but despite the all-in extermination effort the species continued to thrive. While no longer hunted for bounties in the US., the bad PR stuck like glue—to this day they are generally resented or reviled. Unlike migratory species house sparrows are not protected in the U.S. and, in fact, the population has declined somewhat.
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save-sparrowFollowing the tried and true media script, the house sparrow is experiencing a rebound in popularity, at least in its native range. This is due to precipitous population declines in England, where this native species has been “red-listed,” Europe, Scandinavia, and India. The problem seems to be a lack of available food for their young—nestlings need the higher level of protein insects provide, only later changing to a grain-based diet. As Rachel Carson pointed out decades ago, our pesticide arms race takes a toll on many of the creatures we enjoy having around. Over the past 10-15 years, “Save Sparrows” campaigns have encouraged home-owners to decrease or eliminate insecticide use, choosing insect-attracting plants, and intentionally increasing nesting sites.
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I’ve yet to see anything in the scientific literature proposing North American as a possible source of imported house sparrows to repopulate their original range but there’s a nice full-circle appeal to that storyline.  Maybe you can go home again.
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© 2015 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work  but please ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license (CCL) or Project Guttenberg License (PGL) (from top to bottom): Martha de Jong-Lantink, CCL (birds on a branch); Harper & Brothers, PGL (feeding the sparrows); Eric Bégin, CCL (male HOSP); Phil McIver, CCL (female HOSP); gingiber, CCL (HOSP nest); Cactus26, CCL (HOSP distribution map); Albert F. Siepert, PGL (sparrow trap).