NATURE: Birds That Are New Yorkers by Donald Culross Peattie

Birds That Are New Yorkers by Donald Culross Peattie

From The New York Times Magazine

February is a good month in which to make friends with the birds of a great city.  It is often deemed the dullest page in the bright almanac of birds.  For all of nature February is the last, not the second, month of the year.  It is the hour before the dawn when, it is customary to say, nothing of interest happens.  Practically no birds arrive in February on their Spring migrations, and almost none of the Winter visitants depart.

Yet where others have long despised to look, be sure that there is at least a grain of gold undiscovered, and sometimes a whole lode.  The spirit of discovery, true scientific discovery, is, after all, not concerned with the rare, but with the tremendous importance of the usual.  A skylark on your penthouse potted pine would be a sensational accident, but it would be nothing else.  A city pigeon’s strutting on your office window sill is, for all that is already known about pigeons, still the more significant event.

The biology of the pigeon, his marvelous adaptability, his intelligence, the fascination of his Mendelian strains, bred, interbred, and bred out again to the normal – these in the end surpass any meaning that a skylark would have if he chanted some morning at your window.  For, after all, skylarks have been tried – they were introduced around Flatbush, only to perish after a few years – and are found wanting.  Wanting, that is, in nature’s prime demand, ability to survive.

The ability to survive constant association with human beings is the first prerequisite of those birds that do not merely pass through the city in Winter but make of it a more or less permanent home.  Since you yourself, and all of us, largely make these conditions, it is interesting to see how they look to the birds.  And this is the picture:

A jumble of peaks and canyons having nothing about them that, to bird intelligence, means a memorable landmark; a glare of lights by night, many of them swaying, all of them blinding; a powerful upward draft from all high buildings, so strong as to toss airplanes about like corks at sea; insect fare very nearly nil, and grain supply scarcely better; nesting sites rare or totally lacking for all birds that demand a tree, a shrub, or a tuft of grass; constant danger from traffic, from dislodgement of the nest, from hungry, prowling cats and rats; absence in the modern city of telegraph lines for perches; and, frequently, the definite hostility of the city authorities, who are prepared, if a bird enjoys any success at all, to blast him out of town with a fire hose, or to shoot him or poison his food or trap him.

The advantages are few, but real.  They include warmth and shelter in Winter, great opportunities for scavenging around refuse piles, and an absence of competition from other species.

And now begins the biological fascination of the study of city birds, a pursuit that needs no instruments nor field trips to further it, for the phenomenon of their adaptation lies all about us ready for our understanding.  We grasp it so readily because it is, in many respects, identical with our experiences as social denizens of the vast human rookery we call a city.

Obviously, to begin with, those birds would succeed within these strict limits of life which were inherently adaptable and educable.  They must possess some previous experience of humanity, and food habits which are close to ours, or at least not confined in a finikin way to a few forest insects or the nectar of flowers.  There will have also to be a high prolificity, to cover the accident rate incident upon living where humans order all things only for their own convenience.

And, finally, these metropolitan singers will have to be possessed of many human qualities.  They must be social, able to endure and enjoy crowding, able to act as a flock, to pool common interests and make concerted attacks upon local problems.  They certainly need intelligence, and it is probable that they need more of a vocabulary, more power to communicate, than we find in the solitary singer in the woods.

Now when all these conditions are imposed, how many native American birds would measure up to them?  Considering only the birds of the Northeastern States, there come to my mind few besides grackles, some of the swallows, crows, jay, and, in their restricted element, harbor gulls.  Out of these, only our common harbor or herring gull – a cosmopolite of ports the world around – is actually a common city bird, and that of course not outside the fringe of docks and watersides.

As a scavenger of city and ocean refuse the gull is invaluable.  And, it seems, to be useful to man is the best chance of survival which any animal can have.  Not only is the gull protected by law in civilized communities; he has one other great survival value – his flesh is nauseous and inedible.  He is not worth killing.

It is not surprising that all the rest of our regular resident city birds should be European species.  For the conditions of life in Europe have been at work for centuries in selecting out for survival only the creatures that get along with the human species.  They must be clever and adaptable, and able sturdily to hold their own; but they must, however thieving, predatory, or mischievous, not carry their aggressive characteristics so far that man will make a concerted effort to destroy them.  If they cannot be good like the pigeons, they must be able to gauge the limits of man’s patience to a nicety, like the English sparrows, and just escape his most awful wrath.

The white man introduced many changes when he came to America.  He brought with him new weapons – plow and axe, dog and horse, drainage and guns.  He broke open the museum of ancient American life, a crowded exhibit of delicate antiquities to which nothing new could be added without first clearing something away.  And European man instinctively cleared away everything unfamiliar to him.  The buffalo was monarch here, but wild, untamed, unpedigreed, and the white man preferred domesticated, servile cattle.  He exterminated the passenger pigeon and put the barnyard pigeon in its place.  He upset the balance of nature, and never since has he been able to restore it.

The least unfortunate of his efforts has been the introduction of the common pigeon, more correctly the rock dove of Europe.  This creature was established in early times by the first colonists, and as a pet his right to be here has never been denied.  But it is only recently that ornithologists have actually begun to measure his intelligence.

We all see the pigeons in the streets, but few of us stop to wonder where they nest, or in what season.  We never see their squabs, yet we know that, uncared for, these gentle denizens of the skyscrapers are not diminishing in numbers.  In short, quite characteristically, we take for granted the most mysterious and astonishing facts about us; we exclaim only over exceptions and coincidences without meaning, such as the fortuitous landing of a dazed woodcock on the windowsill of the headquarters of the Audubon Society, high above New York.

A less endearing immigrant, but one just as thoroughly Americanized, is the sparrow that we rather unjustly call English.  It was deliberately introduced at Brooklyn in 1851 and 1852, and in a short time it had spread as widely as in Australia.  Intended to eat up a harmful insect pest, it soon had earned for itself the reputation of the prime and classic example of a pest.

War has been waged on the domestic sparrow, with guns and poisoned grain and traps.  But it was two unforeseen influences that checked the triumphs of Passer domesticus.  First, the coming of the automobile and the consequent disappearance of the horse from our streets changed the course of sparrow history, for this guttersnipe thrives best around horses.  Next, the advent of the starlings introduced a challenger.  In a few fast rounds the starling has pretty well won the title.

The domestic sparrow will never pass completely from our city scene, for his very prolificity will sustain him.  Or rather, his wife’s industrious matronhood, for the female sparrow is often seen carrying straw for a nest in February, and as many as four broods are crowded into the year’s cycle.

Eugene Schieffelin, one of the first to import house sparrows, not content with his misguided good works, continued in the same vein in 1890 and 1891 by releasing one hundred starlings in Central Park.  They were also deliberately introduced in Baltimore and Washington, and at the present writing are becoming common as far west as Illinois.  The general verdict is that we have got rid of a cat by importing a tiger.

The indictment against the starling is a long one.  He gangs up on other birds, invading the home sites of such valuable native species as nest in hollows and under eaves, like the robin, flicker, woodpeckers, swallows, and bluebirds.  And by the use of concerted numbers, starlings defeat rival species individually.  The endless gabbling of these birds in their dingy, spotted, untidy Winter plumage, makes the street and squares where they congregate look and sound very like a hobo college.

But there are things to be said in the starling’s favor.  He was long ago voted by the farmers of England the most useful bird, from his habit of destroying insect pests.  In the great drought of 1934 starlings in Illinois helped put an end to the frightful chinch bug menace.  The crow-like intelligence of starlings makes them interesting neighbors, and to see them go wheeling out, several hundred in a flock, in perfect formation, gives a lift to the heart that loves gallantry.

Finding the faults in city birds, we are shown a mirror of our own kind.  They are quarrelsome, tolerant of dirt, greedy, and distinctly promiscuous, having those polygamous and polyandrous tendencies one must regretfully call all too human.  This cliff-dwelling life of ours, so ancient and so modern, seems to call forth our own failings in our animal neighbors.  But when we complain of them we should remember that we cannot expect hermit thrushes to live on Broadway.  It is starlings and pigeons and sparrows or nothing – and when one must rub elbows with neighbors, it is wisest to find in them all the good there is.

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