Here we are in the dead of winter, surrounded by only the most common of ordinary birds. They are birds we take for granted. Maybe a few we don’t even like very much. I’m talking to you, house sparrow. These common birds might surprise you.
House sparrows are the common sparrows found around McDonald’s parking lots. They were imported from Europe, and are unrelated to any of our North American sparrows. House sparrows are color-coded. The larger the patch of black on the throat, the older and more dominant the male is. Younger males know at a glance not to tangle with them, which discourages fights among birds in a pecking order.
European starlings were also introduced from the Old World. They were brought here by fans of William Shakespeare, who wished for America to have every bird mentioned by The Bard. You’ll find mention of the starling in Henry IV, Act One, Scene Three. They have a particularly capable set of taste buds, able to recognize flavors from salt to sour to sweet. They can discern the difference between sugars, which is useful because they can’t digest sucrose.
The rock pigeons found in all cities have been around humans for so long that it’s impossible to figure out where they started. Homing pigeons are merely city pigeons that have been selectively bred to improve their homing abilities. Even ordinary pigeons are pretty good at finding their way home if they’ve been captured and carried away blindfolded. Pigeons poop on their nests, unlike other birds. Since they continually reuse the nest, eventually it becomes a big, well-cemented mound, sometimes even containing unhatched eggs and the skeletal remains of dead nestlings. But perhaps the biggest surprise is that despite the seeming abundance of pigeons in America, the population has actually dropped by half in the last 50 years.
Mourning doves are the most hunted game bird in North America. Over 20,000,000 are harvested each year.
American robins are unexpectedly common in winter. There were nearly a thousand tallied on the Christmas Bird Count in Portland. Robins can subsist on berries for long periods. In summer, their fondness for earthworms is augmented by a few bugs and snails. Surprisingly, they eat most of those in the morning, switching to fruit in the afternoon.
Black-capped chickadees deserve to be the Maine state bird. They survive winters by caching food, and can remember thousands of hiding places. There’s only so much room in their tiny brains for that kind of memory, so in autumn the neurons that contain outdated summer information are allowed to die. They’re replaced by new neurons ready to store winter data. Killing off outdated brain cells is something they do naturally. I rely on beer.
Male mallards don’t quack. They do make a raspy sound, but the well-known quacking noise is produced only by females.
The wild turkey and Muscovy duck are the only North American birds to be domesticated. The duck can swim, but so can the turkey. They just tuck in their wings, spread out their tails, and start kicking.
Canada geese vary in size more than many species. They actually sort it out during courtship. In something called assortative mating, geese tend to choose mates of a similar size. Don’t be surprised. Humans do that, too. Geese mate for life, staying together year round. Fooling around and outright divorces occur, but these happen less often than among other species that purportedly mate for life.
Downy and hairy woodpeckers are year-round residents that share a huge range across North America. Hairy woodpeckers are larger, with longer bills. Otherwise, they are similar in color and habit, visiting backyard feeders at will. But some behavioral differences stand out. Downy woodpeckers will forage on twigs and thin branches at the tops of trees. They’ll feed on weeds, reeds, and cattails. Hairy woodpeckers won’t. Hairy woodpeckers will trail pileated woodpeckers through the woods, even following the deep sounds of their hammering. After the pileated woodpecker finishes excavating a deep hole and departs, the hairy moves in to find what the pileated missed.
Blue jays are so fond of acorns that they are credited with spreading the oak forest across North America after the glaciers receded. They are known for mimicking the sound of hawks, but they can be taught to mimic human voices and meowing cats.
All these birds are around in the dead of winter. When next you see one, you might not be so quick to take them for granted.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.