For the Birds Radio Program: A Letter from Roger Tory Peterson

Original Air Date: Aug. 10, 1987

Laura wrote to the famous Roger Tory Peterson to get his take on birds mooching at fast food restaurants and received a charming reply.

Duration: 3′31″


(Recording of a House Sparrow)

The fast food franchise habitat has always interested me, probably because I grew up in Chicago, where a kid quickly learns to settle for drab, ordinary birds. In the first ornithology class I ever took, at Michigan State University, I wrote a paper comparing House Sparrow foraging behavior at one East Lansing McDonald’s restaurant and in my backyard. Since then, I’ve paid careful attention to mooching birds in restaurant parking lots. Oddly enough, I’ve yet to see a pigeon at McDonald’s, and have seen only a handful of starlings there. In inland cities, House Sparrows invariably predominate, with Common Grackles often joining them. On a trip to Savannah, Georgia, I found Boat-tailed Grackles at one McDonald’s–the only life bird I’ve ever found at a fast food joint. But I haven’t spent much time outside the Great Lakes region.

With the current local furor in Duluth over Ring-billed Gulls, which have completely taken over the fast food scene, I decided to write to an authority who has birded around the world to get a broader perspective on begging birds. And who better to turn to than the head honcho of birders, Roger Tory Peterson, the matchless artist and author of A Field Guide to the Birds. He very kindly wrote back a detailed account of restaurant birds he has encountered.

He said, “…At one of our local restaurants, The Sand Bar, at the mouth of the Connecticut River, Common Grackles mooch amongst the tables along with the House Sparrows and, of course, Ring-billed Gulls. An occasional Herring Gull also gets in on the show and one bird became so tame that I could practically feed it by hand. An occasional Laughing Gull also takes advantage. In Florida, Laughing Gulls beg for food at many fast-food places during the summer months whereas Ring-bills dominate during the winter. Here in Connecticut, inasmuch as The Sand Bar restaurant is on the waterfront, Mute Swans cruise alongside the pavilion welcoming tidbits. These are feral swans that are now breeding on their own and increasing in the Northeast.

“I have been told that, in Florida, Ruddy Turnstones have actually been known to scavenge things around the picnic tables; a new habit. It is the only shorebird I would ever expect to do a thing like this because it is by far the most adaptable in its survival techniques.”

Dr. Peterson continues, “I am sure there are many other birds that are slowly becoming bums. Fish Crows, around some resorts in Florida - Black Vultures at Flamingo in Everglades Park when the men are gutting fish - even some young Brown Pelicans that have not learned to make an honest living. At Venice, Florida, I once saw an immature Brown Pelican walk into a fish store and stand in front of the counter! I suspect that as birds wise up certain individuals of many more species will find it expeditious to do these things.”

(Recording of a House Sparrow)

That was Roger Tory Peterson, this is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”