Nature Connection: The Unwelcome Ones

By: Mary Richmond

A European starling. MARY RICHMOND ILLUSTRATION

They start chattering long before the sun comes up. Their roost is outside my window and I know they are plotting the best ways to raid the feeders the minute the light rises in the sky.

Down the street and across the way, another group is restlessly waiting, their whines a little more subtle in the dawn than they will be later in the morning.

By the time the sun is up, my feeders are humming with activity. There are blue jays, cardinals, chickadees, titmice, goldfinches, house finches, Carolina wrens and both kinds of nuthatches. Flickers, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers take their turns at the suet and all is well, if not a little contentious when too many want the same perch.

And then, THEY arrive. Hundreds of them. They take over the feeders and fill the ground with their strutting, shouting and gobbling ways. Who are they? The house sparrows and the starlings. It’s probably safe to say these birds are the bane of many bird feeder’s existence. They can clean out a feeder in less than half an hour. They push the other birds out and fight constantly. They are noisy, dirty, and poorly mannered. Many refer to them as trash birds, due to this behavior.

I live in Hyannis and have always had a few of these around, but since a relatively new neighbor began putting out copious amounts of mixed seed, they have moved right in. I only use black oil sunflower and once they’ve cleaned me out, they go visit her. They spend the rest of the day arguing in her yard. She sees no difference between them and the chickadees. “They’re all hungry,” she says, “so I feed them.”

House sparrows, also called English sparrows, and European starlings are not native to Cape Cod, New England or North America. They are European birds, like the mute swan, and they were brought to America years ago in an odd attempt to reproduce the birds of Shakespeare in parks and estates across the country, beginning with Central Park. What all these birds have in common is that they are super survivors adapting to many conditions almost instantly. Some reproduce quickly and effectively, having three, four, even five broods a year. Compare that to the one or two of most of our native birds. They are also extremely aggressive and will take over the nests of other birds, killing the rightful owners and all their young.

I find myself feeling annoyed when they mob my feeders and push the cardinals away. I get tired of the screeching and bickering and smirk when the Cooper’s hawk makes her swoop through the yard. Unfortunately, she is more likely to snag a mourning dove than a quick and feisty starling.

In the worlds of ecology and biology, there is much disdain for invasive species. They compete and often outcompete native species and this goes for plants, sea life, insects, mammals, etc. It is not a big leap to compare this to human immigration from certain parts of the world. One could even compare it to the colonization of America by Europeans and the disruption and destruction of native populations and cultures.

As I think about these unwelcome birds in my own backyard, I can’t help but think of the symbolism of this, especially during the holidays. It seems to me the difference between being welcome or unwelcome is really in the eyes of the beholder.

The last few years have ripped open an ugly side of our society. There are those that hate anyone who doesn’t look like them, sound like them or live like them. Many of the same complaints we have about so-called trash birds are easily superimposed over complaints about other people.

My neighbor is happy to have birds in her yard. She doesn’t care what birds they are. She is from another country and misses the birds she used to see there. She is used to large flocks and lots of noise. She finds it festive and fun. Her attitude invites me to see these birds differently.

And so, I find myself adapting. I throw seed on the ground, which both the sparrows and starlings seem to prefer. The squirrels, cardinals and doves all join them in peaceable fashion. Unwelcome is only a word, a thought. As a culture we have not been very welcoming. We’ve acted like a flock of starlings, systematically taking what we want without a thought of what or who was there before us. We’ve used up resources as if greed was a virtue, not a vice.

As winter comes knocking on our doors this week, perhaps it is good to remember that when a family of strangers knocked on doors years ago, they ended up sleeping in the manger with the animals. No room at the inn, they were told. Go away, you’re not welcome here.

In my neighborhood there are many people who have come here from different countries — Jamaica, Brazil, Ecuador, China and Estonia to name just a few. These are hard-working people with big laughs, good food and beautiful gardens. Some feel they and others like them are unwelcome. As I watch the starlings squabble I realize they are just hungry, not evil. I throw more seed on the ground. Welcome, strangers, I think. There is room at the inn for all who need shelter, and no one should go hungry when there is plenty of food to go around.