They thrive in our cities, taking over the sidewalks and filling the trees, these hardy species will do anything for a crumb or two to subsist among the human masses.
They're very social creatures: never alone, always cheeping in touch. Their various calls all signify something different, as in, you can separate when they're content, agitated or alarmed. Their interactions include begging and feeding, chasing off other birds (although their comrades are all bigger so they end up being the chasers) and each other, and then there is the constant search for food.
While you're in the city, you won't even have to keep an eye out for these prolific birds. Constantly cheeping, and trolling alleys, sidewalks and park greens for those tossed-aside niblets, they occupy human territory with ease.
And keep an eye out for albinism; so far this summer I've seen a full albino sparrow and another with a pair of pure white tail feathers. Very cool.
They're an exotic invasive species, it's true. This means they came from elsewhere, Europe in this case, and they're invading ecosystems, often to the detriment of the native species there. The story is that they were brought over from Europe in 1890 by a man named Eugene Scheiffelin who aspired to bring every bird mentioned in Shakespere's works to America. Starlings are highly gregarious and can live in forests as well as cities, so they fit right in as cities grew up around them. Unfortunately for the more timid native cavity nesting species, this prolific outpouring of starlings--which also dwell in cavities-- meant competition for species including bluebirds and woodpeckers.
While I haven’t viewed this particular species of swifts in their nightly descent into the depths of a chimney stack, I have had the privilege of viewing the same feat conducted by vaux’s swifts in Oregon, tumbling en mass into the tall, brick chimney stack on top of the journalism building where I got my master’s.
So, contrary to the popular belief that the first sight of an American Robin indicates the harbinging (harbinging?) of spring, they’re actually found in the city all year. They'll occupy lawns and gardens throughout the winter. Nevertheless, their song does welcome the warmer months as they begin to pair up to nest. Crisp clear notes tumble over one another as this bird sings from the higher branches alongside the sidewalks. Their rush-and-stop foraging behavior can be seen as you walk by a particularly nicely landscaped garden, patch of mulch or any lawn they might find. Grubs and worms are their food of choice in the summertime and fruit in the fall and winter.
There are yet more birds that we can find around the city: canada geese, osprey, gulls and cormorants around the tidal basin, downy woodpeckers forage above the sidewalks in trees, including the middle of downtown. Occasionally you'll hear a bluejay or cardinal. I saw a nesting pair of kingbirds on the corner of the National Mall and chipping sparrows love the grassy expanses it offers. In the urban raptor side of town, there were bald eagles nesting in three locations around the city this spring including a pair that successfully reared a brood above the azaleas at the National Arboretum. A young red tailed hawk kept watch from the white house windowsills this summer. Read more about my take on the urban raptor experience here.
Birds in the city are often overlooked (unless you're ducking as a flock of pigeons hurtle toward you) but they really can give you a sense of the tenacity of nature. Humans have created an unnatural ecosystem and certain birds have adapted and survived. They may be grimy, but that's not their fault. They're also beautiful, their plumage, their flight, their songs, we're lucky to have them here. Some may think we'd be better off without them, but if that were the case, I'm sure I wouldn't be the only one to notice.