For the Birds Radio Program: Common Pests
Laura talks about the problems, but also some of the good points, of introduced species. Date not certain, but JANUARY 2002 is.
I got a call a couple of days ago from a prominent non-birding Duluthian who was thrilled to see two birds he’d never seen before from his office window. They were perched on a wire after feeding on the ground, and were covered with tiny flecks “like beautiful pheasants, only they’re songbirds–smaller but chunkier than robins.” HIs voice was quivering with excitement as he described their beautiful beaks–“two-toned, with bright yellow on the forward two-thirds.” It took me a moment to realize that his thrilling sighting was a pair of starlings.
Nowadays I take some pride in evading starlings as long as possible at the start of a new year, but I remember when I was in college, before I knew there was such a book as a field guide, or such birds as introduced pests. A flock of mystery birds would congregate near my dorm window at mealtime, and I would toss them French fries and other treats. I loved how they peeked into my window looking for me, and when I started birding a few years later and added the European Starling to my lifelist, I was deeply satisfied to have solved the mystery of my “dormitory birds.” Even though for most birders starlings are nothing but exotic pests that cause enormous economic and ecological damage, for me there is both an emotional bond and an intellectual one with this species. When I learned that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a pet starling that he loved dearly, I could certainly understand why.
It used to be that children learned about natural history in school, but nowadays few teachers have the background, interest, and time to give their students much of an awareness of the animals with which we share this planet, or even our town or city. I loved watching pigeons fly over the grimy streets of Chicago decades before I learned that these feral pigeons were the same species as the heroic pigeons that carried messages to save soldiers’ lives during the two World Wars. I loved the House Sparrows cheeping under my dining room window when I was calling them McDonald’s Sparrows and tossing them French fries. I may not have known much about my backyard birds at the time, but it was those early experiences with abundant introduced species that gave me my start in ornithology.
People who study birds often despise the introduced species that have wreaked havoc on many native American birds. In particular, European Starlings and House Sparrows have killed significant numbers of bluebirds and other cavity nesters. Pigeons, because they are mainly restricted to farms and cities and don’t really compete for quality nesting sites, aren’t an ecological threat and do provide an important food source for urban Peregrine Falcons and Snowy Owls, but they are a nuisance for people, and their sheer abundance in less-than-natural habitats make birders look down upon them.
But sometimes it behooves us to consider the good side of even a bad thing. Even as we try to keep introduced species in check, like it or not, these three species have been part of the North America avifauna for well over a hundred years, and will be here for at least as long as we humans dominate the natural world. As long as we’re stuck with them, we might as well focus on the warm, cheerful chirpings of House Sparrows, the beautifully intricate pattern of starling plumage and their rich vocal repertoire, and the powerful and lovely flight of pigeons. These birds may not be the loveliest of birds, but they are a fundamental part of our history and the fabric of our lives, and they give a great many human beings a lot of pleasure.