Why the House Sparrow should be the USA’s National Bird

There are few symbols that represent the United States of America better than the Bald Eagle. The image of a soaring eagle is emblematic of freedom, courage, and bravery. While the Bald Eagle has long been accepted as the best choice to represent our country, it has not been without its detractors. Founding Father Ben Franklin had a famous distaste for eagles, once stating this in a letter:

“For my own part. I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly … besides he is a rank coward: The little king bird not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. “

If not the Bald Eagle, then what other bird could possibly be suited for this proud nation? According to lore, Franklin preferred the Wild Turkey as the bird to best represent the United States as he viewed the species as intelligent and cunning. However, there could be one often overlooked species that would be an even better fit: The House Sparrow.

Before angrily closing your laptop, hear me out on this one. The much maligned House Sparrow may have more in common with Americans than first meets the eye.

Shared History

The ancestors of House Sparrows living in the United States today were not native to North America, but rather introduced in 1851 in Brooklyn New York. They were introduced again in San Francisco and Salt Lake City in the 1870s. They found this new habitat suitable and by 1900 had made their way across the entire mainland USA with populations stretching from coastline to coastline.

It’s easy to have ill feelings toward a species that inhabits a land that was not their own,  but then again most of our ancestors arrived from other countries as well. Much like the adventurous House Sparrow, many immigrants arrived in New York and California to start their new lives in the United States. The first immigrants that arrived in the United States in 1620 initially struggled in their quest to find a better life. Eventually, their descendants along with other immigrants expanded westward, and much like the House Sparrow began to thrive. As new Americans moved across the nation, so did the House Sparrow, often prospering in areas already inhabited by humans.

House Sparrow
House Sparrow

Shared Habitat

While most native species spend their time away from human activity, House Sparrows thrive in it. Like other non-native species such as European Starlings and Pigeons, House Sparrows can be found near almost any man-made structure including houses, bridges, brush piles and many more. House Sparrows not only live with humans but also dine with them, frequently eating discarded food scraps and utilizing backyard bird feeders. The fact that these birds have found a way to live right alongside people sets them apart from many other species that inhabit North America.

Well we’d like to believe that we are adventurous and prefer to be exploring the outdoors, in reality, most of us prefer our comfortable nests in the city. This is also true of the House Sparrow as they actually prefer to utilize man-made structures and birdhouses rather than natural tree cavities.

Shared Characteristics

House Sparrows have a habit of being quite nasty to other species. While nesting they will harass any other bird that gets close to their nest and even violently attack nesting birds in an attempt to evict them from nest holes that they want. Many nature enthusiasts harbor disdain for House Sparrows because of this brash aggression toward anything that flies. Bird lovers also despise them due to their tendency to displace native species. However, as human habitation continues to infringe on natural areas it becomes clear that we may have more in common with House Sparrows than we’d like to believe. In 2009 there were nearly 2,000 species of plants and animals listed as endangered in North America. Most of those have habitat loss noted as the primary reason.

Though it’s easy to dwell on the negative correlations between House Sparrows and Americans, there are many things to be proud of when it comes to this bird. They are very social, living in groups communicating with each other often. They display great courage in the face of much larger enemies and fiercely defend their families. They are resilient and adaptive and have found a way to proliferate an entire continent. While the House Sparrow may be a nuisance to other bird species, they do whatever it takes to ensure the survival of their own species. Surely that is found in human beings as well.

Final Thoughts

The House Sparrow is an impressively adaptive species that carved out a niche for itself in a land it didn’t originally belong in. They have successfully found a way to co-exist with human beings and have withstood the freezing winters and harsh summers of the North America to live in nearly every state. The House Sparrows defends itself and its family with courage and ferocity even in the face of a much larger foe.

While the House Sparrow gets a bad rap, If one looks below the surface, it’s easy to see ourselves in this species even if we don’t want to admit it. This little bird has beaten the odds; ascending beyond its small stature to become a fixture in many North American environments. With a story similar to our own, this formerly European species is now just as American as we are. For that reason, the House Sparrow would be the perfect National bird for the United States.

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Horicon Marsh in Early August

On Saturday, I met Derek up at Horicon Marsh. Lately, the best shorebird habitat has been at Horicon and some rare species have been located. One of the rarest has been the a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper that has been seen off and on for the past week. While the sandpiper didn’t make an appearance there was still plenty to see.

Horicon Marsh
Horicon Marsh

When I arrived on highway 49 I saw an incredibly large number of birds on the mudflats to the south. Many were too far out to identify, but some of the closer birds turned out to be decent finds. Some notables were Wilson’s Phalaropes, Black-necked Stilts, and Short-billed Dowitchers.

Black-necked Stilt
Black-necked Stilt

On the north side of highway 49 were many Great Egrets and Great-blue Herons feeding on fish left behind by the drying water. Among the Egrets and Herons was a single Snowy Egret (a rare bird for the state with only a few reports each year). A few Least Sandpipers and Killdeer were also present.

Snowy Egret and Great-blue Heron
Snowy Egret and Great-blue Heron

After another quick scan of the south side oh 49 yielded no new birds, Derek headed out while I continued to the Auto Tour. I parked in the Auto Tour lot and walked down Old Marsh Road. Within 50 feet of walking I noticed a Least Bittern perched up on the reeds. This was the closest I had ever been to a Least Bittern so even though they aren’t rare it was a nice surprise. Farther down the road I added Sora, Virginia Rail, and Black Tern to my day list. On the way out of the auto tour I located a juvenile Common Gallinule.

Overall, I found several year birds with the Snowy Egret being the rarest. While the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper couldn’t be found, it was still a great day to be out.

Yellow-breasted Chat at Brooklyn Wildlife Area

Last Sunday (June 3, 2018), I decided to sample a few areas in the southern part of the state in both Dane and Sauk Counties. The trek began early in the morning at Brooklyn State Wildlife area located just south of Madison in Dane County. Several Field Sparrows perched up on my way down the trail. I was also serenaded by the songs of Brown Thrashers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Eastern Wood-Pewees. It wasn’t until I walked about half a mile in that I heard the distinct mewing and catcalling of a YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT. I was able to locate the bird singing near the top of a nearby tree hunkered in it’s leaves.

This bird, about the size of a grosbeak, is often heard and not seen due to their elusive nature. Chats are found in areas with dense brush, such as thickets and forest openings and primarily seen in the southern part of the state. The Yellow-breasted Chat was once considered to be in the Wood Warbler family, but in 2017, this species became the only member of the Icteriidae family.

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Sauk Prairie Recreation Area, in the background is Pine Glen Gorge of Devils Lake State Park

After being satisfied by a decent show from the Chat, I moved north to Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area. This area was formerly the Badger Army and Ammunition Plant, at one time the largest manufacturer of munitions in the world. The drive down the main road yielded some decent open country birds such as Eastern Meadowlarks and Clay-colored Sparrows. Most notable was a singing BELL’S VIREO not far from the entrance. After driving a few miles into the property I made it to the dense brush I was looking for. A singing WHITE-EYED VIREO sang its harsh, rapid song. Unfortunately, the bird never made an appearance before the wind picked up and activity died down.

Birding in Early June – Retzer Nature Center and Horicon Marsh

Today, Ryan and I got a late start to birding. We decided to star locally and we headed to one of our favorite spots: Retzer Nature Center. Our goal was to check if the Dickcissel had returned to the prairie. We arrived around 1 o’clock and started on our usual loop. At the pond was a single Green Heron perched on a log along with a couple of kids catching frogs. They didn’t seem to notice the Heron and the Heron did not seem disturbed by them. Further along the path were numerous Song Sparrows and American Goldfinches. We continued through the forest and found several black-capped Chickadees and American Robins. As we exited the forest and started on the edge habitat, several Indigo Buntings were calling and Tree Swallows flew overhead. The grass on the Oak was fairly tall but we did not hear any Henslow’s Sparrows or Dickcissel. After listening for about 10 minutes we continued up the hill and were amazed at the number of Bobolinks on the prairie making their metallic buzzing call. After stopping to appreciate them we continued our loop and ended up back at our car. It was fairly windy and there were gray clouds overhead most of the time, and we decided to head back home and check the birding reports.

Bobolink
Bobolink

When we got back home Ryan saw that Black-bellied Plovers, a Hudsonian Godwit, and Wilson’s Phalaropes were seen at Horicon Marsh. After some debate, we decided to take the hour and ten-minute drive up to the marsh in an attempt to see the birds. On the way, there was debate on which CDs to listen to and one missed exit but we eventually arrive around 4 o’clock. few stopped on Highway 49 and noticed there was a lot of shorebird activity. We pulled over and picked out Dunlin, Pectoral Sandpiper and Black-necked Stilt. We pulled up a little further and still didn’t see any sign of the Godwit but did pick out several Black-bellied Plovers. We pulled up even further (the good area was large) and eventually picked out the single Hudsonian Godwit searching for food! A new year bird for Ryan and I. There were many black terns flying around, and we were also able to find one White-rumped Sandpiper in the mix. Also present were Canada Geese, Northern Shovelers, Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, and calling Sandhill Cranes.

We moved on to the other side of Highway 49 and noticed many Great Egrets. There were several photographers pulled over but it seemed like they weren’t looking at the Egrets. To our surprise there were 2 Ibis out in the field! We checked the faces to see what kind they were (Glossy or White-faced) and both seemed to be White-faced, one adult and one immature.

Horicon Marsh
Derek surveying the marsh

After observing the Ibis for a long time we headed to the auto tour and decided to walk Old Marsh Road to look for Least Bittern. With dark clouds looming overhead we cautiously walked out and noticed that there seemed to be many dried-up turtle eggs next to open holes in the ground. We weren’t sure if these were nests that had been predated or eggs that had simply hatched. Down the road, there were several flocks of White Pelicans, Warbling Vireos, Yellow Headed and Red-winged Blackbirds, and Marsh Wrens. We traveled further than we originally planned, hoping to find some decent shorebird habitat but the water was too high. The only shorebird-like find was one Killdeer. On the way back we stopped to admire the call of a lunking American Bittern and one fly by Black-crowned Night Heron. We finished our loop on the auto tour noticing several American Coots, but not finding too much else. We made one more stop on Highway 49 and noticed one more Ibis and thought it must be a Glossy. Upon further observation it proved to be another White-faced, but we couldn’t be disappointed about seeing 3 Ibis on a trip where we didn’t expect to see any. We stopped one more time to admire the Hudsonian Godwit, Plovers, and Stilts before heading home, pleased with out day.

Notable Finds: Hudsonian Godwit, Black-bellied Plover, American Bittern, Black-necked Stilt, White-faced Ibis

Notable Misses: Wilson’s Phalarope, Whooping Crane

The Silver Lining of Failing to Find a Chat

A lot of times birders like to write about the awesome birds they found and the glorious moments when they find the rarity they were chasing after. This is not one of those moments. For the past few days, Yellow-breasted Chats have been reported at in Milwaukee County. We had gone at least four times to various spots along the lake trying to relocate one of these birds but came up empty each time. One such location is Bender Park in Milwaukee.

With a Yellow-breasted Chat once again reported at bender Park I met Derek there in hopes of finally finding it. Derek got there before I did and informed me he had located a Northern Mockingbird, which is uncommon in Wisconsin. He hadn’t had any luck finding the Chat and told me that he had lost track of the Mockingbird as well. Nonetheless I met him there anyway hoping that four eyes on the dense bushes and open fields could turn up some good finds.

When I arrived there were many birds flitting about in the trees (mostly Palm Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers) but there was no sign of Derek. I took it upon myself to follow an interesting call into the thicket for a while and felt foolish when it turned out to be a Brown Thrasher. After spending some time feeling disgusted with my lack of call identification skills I headed toward the open field to the lake. The Clay-colored Sparrows were buzzing. Other sparrow species including Song, and Savannah were working the edges of the cliffs along with Bank and Northern Rough-winged Swallows. I made my way back to the main path while Eastern Towhees and Gray Catbirds called all around me.

Eventually I was able to find Derek who was looking thoroughly defeated after once again having no luck with the Chat. We searched a while longer for either the Chat or the Mockingbird but had no luck. We were however able to pick up a Blackpoll Warbler and a Bobolink near the cliff edge.

Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird

We had given up our search and started back to our cars when something caught Derek’s eye. “Hey I think that’s it” he said very stoically. Suddenly he changed his mind and stated “no I think that’s something else” as if he didn’t want to get his hopes up. Suddenly with a flash of its wing we saw the characteristic white wing bars of a Northern Mockingbird. We admired the bird for a bit as it worked its way east flying from tree to tree. Eventually we headed back to our car feeling glad that our efforts had yielded something. Leave it to Derek to find a rare bird twice in one day.

Isabella, Minnesota: Search for the Boreal Chickadee

On our second day in Minnesota we ventured north in search of the elusive Boreal Chickadee. Our destination was the tiny town of Isabella where the highest congregation of e bird reports were. After a two hour drive, the clear skies of Duluth had given way to a windy blizzard.

As we drove the back roads we saw few birds other than a few Black-capped Chickadees, American Crows, and Common Ravens. We did have an exciting sighting of a pure white Snowshoe Hair which most of us had never seen before.

Gray Jay
Gray Jay

We finally arrived at the Isabella Café where several reports of Boreal Chickadees had been logged. We walked around the café and saw some Black-capped Chickadees which gave us hope that Boreal Chickadees may not be far behind. We located two very friendly Gray Jays that came right up to us and ate scraps left out by the restaurant. A singing Pine Grosbeak flew in to check us out for a few minutes as well.

After failing to find what we were looking for we continued on the snow covered back roads of northern Lake County stopping and listening any time we found nice looking habitat. After many stops without hearing a sound, Derek spotted a Boreal Chickadee. We excitedly got out of the car and tried getting photos and videos of the fast moving chickadee. We noticed not one but two of them flitting around in the trees. Almost as soon as they had arrived, they departed back into the thick conifers.

We had to work extremely hard to find our target bird but on the way back we marveled at the fact that we were actually able to find not one but two of these birds. Overall, our trip to Minnesota went better than any of us had anticipated and we went home content with our weekend of birding.

Sax Zim Bog 2018

Derek and I traveled to the legendary Sax Zim Bog for a weekend of birding with Bill, Alex, Barry, and Rob. The day started at 9pm on Friday when we met up with Bill and Barry and began the seven hour drive northeast.

Upon arriving we met up with Rob and Alex and waited for first light to signal the start of what would be one of the best birding days any of us had ever had. The action started almost immediately when we went to McDavitt road. We quickly spotted the silhouette of a Great Gray Owl (a bird most of us had never seen in real life). After watching the owl fly from tree to tree we moved on to check other stretches of road before day officially broke. We found another Great Gray but the lighting was still too dim to get a photo with any detail.

As the sun rose high enough to give better views of our surroundings we headed to a known Sharp-tailed Grouse lek. On our way we encountered several American Crows, Common Ravens and a Northern Shrike perched high up in a tree. On a road a bit closer to the leking site we encountered another Great Gray Owl and a Ruffed Grouse.

At the field where the Sharp-tailed Grouse were performing their courtship dance, several cars were already parked along the road side. We could see the grouse far out in the field but noticed that some of them were under a feeder closer to the road. These birds offered great looks as they fed. In addition to the grouse, Black-capped Chickadees and Common Redpolls were also visiting the feeders.  On the other side of the road a Pine Grosbeak was calling from the top of a tree.

American Three-toed Woodpecker
American Three-toed Woodpecker

From the lek, we moved on to Warren Nelson Memorial Bog to search for woodpeckers. We walked on a trail worn in the snow by numerous people searching the forest. After walking a short distance we noticed a bird high in the tops of the pines. It turned out to be a Gray Jay, one of the most inquisitive birds in the forest. We pressed on and heard tapping on trees from time to time but couldn’t seen to peg down where it was coming from. With the cold starting to get to us we were about to turn back when Derek decided to go a ways further. He was able to locate the American Three-toed Woodpecker working its way up a tree. As we looked at it, three more Gray Jays flew in and watched us curiously. Shortly after, Rob was able to find a Black-backed Woodpecker on the trail and pointed it out to us.

After a quick lunch we went to Mary Lou’s feeding station where there were Common Redpolls, Black-capped Chickadees, Pine Grosbeaks, and Evening Grosbeaks. The Evening Grosbeaks gave us great looks but the Pine Grosbeaks stayed relatively far away. From there, we went to the visitor center where we were able to pick out one Hoary Redpoll in large flock of Common Redpolls. On the way to the center we had a lucky sighting of a Black-billed Magpie flying over the road.

 

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Boreal Owl

 

Feeling good about finding most of the birds we were looking for, we cruised along roads where Northern Hawk Owls had been seen. After an unsuccessful drive down Stone Lake Road, we saw cars parked along the roadside with people outside taking pictures. We rushed over to the group who was looking at a very well hidden Boreal Owl. We did our best to get a clear shot of the small bird through the thicket of branches it was nestled in.

After that, we went back down McDavitt Road where a different Hawk Owl had been spotted. We once again struck out but were able to find a very cooperative Great-gray Owl that perched on top of a tree and gave us fantastic looks before eventually flying further into the woods.

Northern Hawk Owl
Northern Hawk Owl

Later, we made one last effort to find a Northern Hawk Owl. We looked as hard as we could, checking the tree tops until the sun started to set. We gave up and started heading back to our hotel when we noticed the bird sitting on the peak of a deciduous tree. We excitedly got out and started taking pictures. All of the sudden, the bird took off and flew in a low bush across the road significantly closer to us than it had been before. After getting even more photos we were ecstatic about all of the different species we had seen. The only target bird we still needed was Boreal Chickadee. For that, we knew we would have to go even farther north. Overall, most of us ended up with several life birds and all had an incredible day birding.