For the Birds Radio Program: Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Laura looked forward for many years to seeing the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, which are found in North America only in St. Louis. She happened to accomplish her goal the very morning after the St. Louis Cardinals broke the Boston Red Sox curse, but she doesn’t mention that in this program.
When I started birding in 1975, I spent many happy hours thumbing through my Golden field guide, looking at the huge variety of birds that I’d never even dreamed of. Some captured my imagination—the Pileated Woodpecker was so funky, the Wood Duck so intricately beautiful, the Painted Bunting so colorful, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak so brilliant and strange, the Blackburnian Warbler so pretty, the puffins so comical, the displaying Sage Grouse so bizarre—all these birds stuck out and I couldn’t wait to see each one.
And another stood out, too. I’d always been taken with House Sparrows—I found their homey cheeping at bedtime a lovely comfort—and found my first House Sparrow for my life list within a couple of days when I started birding. But right next to it in the Golden guide was another introduced sparrow—the Eurasian Tree Sparrow—a handsome little bird, both sexes similar to the male House Sparrow only with a little oval spot on each cheek. It was pretty enough to stand out for its looks, but what fascinated me about it was that, according to the book, on this entire continent this bird could be found only in and around St. Louis, Missouri.
In December of 1978, Russ and I drove down to Texas, and stopped on Christmas Day in St. Louis. At the time there wasn’t a bird book about birding in St. Louis, of course there was no Internet, and I didn’t know who to talk to about the best places to look, so Russ and I scoured several neighborhoods, walking up and down alleys, peeking at bird feeders hoping to see one. Busch Gardens was closed because of the holiday, but we walked around the perimeter searching. I didn’t see one, and that was the last time I was in the area for over 25 years.
But a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that so far, 2004 was the only year since my youngest child was born that I didn’t see a single new bird all year. I’d lost my main paying job late last year, and have been working on a book, so I just haven’t had the time or money to go anywhere exotic all year. But there was no way I could go the whole year without a lifer. I was planning to visit my family in Chicago for my aunt’s annual Halloween party anyway, so I left a couple of days early and headed to St. Louis.
Now, of course, there is a book about birding in St. Louis, and also the Internet. Before I left, I wrote to the national Bird Chat listserv asking if anyone could tell me where to go to be sure of seeing this cool little bird. And I was suddenly inundated with information, along with an invitation from Connie Alwood, one of the authors of the birder’s guide to the St. Louis area. Connie asked me to come to his house—he’d put the coffee on and pretty much guaranteed that we’d see the bird from his dining room window. I spent two nights at my college roommate’s place on a farm just west of Springfield, Illinois, and then early last Thursday morning, headed down to St. Louis. I got there about 9 in the morning, parked myself at Connie’s table, and within a couple of minutes, voila! In flew two Eurasian Tree Sparrows. I’d wanted to see the species for so long that I was afraid that the anticipation would exceed the actual event, but the bird was just as pretty as I’d hoped. I stayed an hour, watching and photographing the bird. When I left I felt happy and fulfilled, satisfied to have finally filled one of the last holes in my North American bird list with a pretty little bird that was every bit as handsome as the book showed.