Birds We Like, or Not: Birdism

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red-eyed bird
Vulturine Guineafowl

I often get asked, “what’s your favorite bird?” I don’t have one. They are all fascinating, from the common European Starling to the rare Kagu. Some have striking coloration, others display complex or bizarre behaviors, and some are just impressive for their size. Some are ugly. But they are all cool.

Another question, though, is “how do I keep __________(fill in the blank) from my bird feeder?” People don’t like jays or crows at their feeders or hawks nearby eyeing the feeder’s customers. Well, the answer is, “why do you want to?” Jays and crows and starling and House Sparrows and maybe pigeons will come to your feeder because you are offering them food. It’s like hanging a sign on your front door saying “free meals” and then being disappointed because the right people aren’t showing up. As long as you offer bird food, a variety of birds will arrive; enjoy them all. If you’d rather not have jays, offer only small seeds. But the more limited your offerings, the more limited the bird species that will show up. And hawks hanging around? They have to eat, too.

Years ago some woman donated a large chunk of money to the local Audubon Society with the caveat that it not be used for hawks. Now I don’t how you can effectively use a small fortune to help birds but not the raptor kind. And you hear people demean sparrows, pigeons, and starlings regularly – they are pests, ugly, etc. I call this “birdism.”Why do we judge birds this way? The Rock Pigeon has a fascinating history, being a messenger through the ages and an essential form of communication on WWI battlefields. The House Sparrow, probably the most famous bird in the world, has been involved in at least 5000 research publications. The European Starling has a very interesting natural and human-related history, not the least of which is its connection to Shakespeare and its importation into the U.S.

Today I strolled through my backyard and watched the elegant Black Phoebes sally forth from their perch to gather an insect or two and then fly to their mud nest on my stucco house. I observed a Nuttall’s Woodpecker hop from oak to oak in search of insect prey, all the while keeping one step, actually one tree, ahead of me. When I reached my winter garden, I noticed a White-crowned Sparrow using a plastic owl for a perch to get a bird’s-eye view of my spinach. Down at the creek I spied a Yellow-legs searching for aquatic insect larvae; the bird took off rapidly with its distinctive “tu-tu” call . Listen here.

Sitting peacefully on my deck, I am often approached closely by California Towhees, one of the drabbest of birds. But their curiosity, habit of scratching the ground, and their mouse-like run make them so, well, cute!

So, don’t just quickly glance at the birds outside your window and decide you like some better than others. They are all lovely.

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