Good morning and welcome to my birding column, Around The Feeder. Lately I’ve been birding outside of my neighborhood more often. Part of it is simply that it’s easier to justify a trip to somewhere new rather than going out in the increasingly-cold air to sit in a park I can see from my window. Part of it, perhaps, is growing demystified with the robins and starlings in Lowertown, St Paul. But I think I’ve just missed chickadees. Today I want to talk about “backyard birds”, a term used to describe birds that are common in residential areas and in large areas of the United States.
I love backyard birds. Not only are many of them genuinely gorgeous and interesting, but I appreciate the familiarity that comes from seeing the same type of bird often. A new or rare species provides exciting novelty, but you never get to know them as well. When I lived in a quiet tree-filled neighborhood in Minneapolis, I would get nuthatches and chickadees at my feeder all the time. We had a downy woodpecker drill into our door, we had two female cardinals that would always eat together when they came by for my sunflower seeds, if you walked up to the train tracks you’d often find a small group of dark-eyed juncos sitting atop the chain fence. I treasured my relationship with these birds, my ability to remember them and feel connected to my area.
Now I live by two lovely parks, but it’s been hard to build that same relationship. Not only am I not able to go out daily to see the birds at Wacouta Commons or Mears Park, but the downtown neighborhood does not allow for much diversity. Starlings, robins, pigeons, and that’s about it. What I wouldn’t give to see a nuthatch at Wacouta. The robins are lovely but there are so many, and they are so fickle, I never recognize any (even the younglings) and never feel very attuned to their behavior. As it gets colder, leaves will fall and our winter residents will likely get more daring as migratory species head South. I’m hoping it gets better and I can go out with more regularity.
In the meantime, I’ve loved seeing birds elsewhere: Baraboo and Como Lake were highlighted in recent travel journals, but I also spent some time at the Woodlake Nature Center in Richfield, where they have several feeders set up by a large window. I sat for a while and watched the birds come and go. I saw the usual suspects, but I also saw a downy woodpecker, a couple of redwinged blackbirds, and even a chickadee! It made me smile like an idiot seeing that tiny little friend after so long. None of these birds are rare, they are all firmly in the category of backyard birds, but they don’t often pop up deep in the city which makes their sightings all the more special. Heading home after, I saw two blue jays on a street sign off the highway. As if the day couldn’t get any better!
Despite my outspoken love for common birds, there is definitely an element of absence making the heart grow fonder. Familiar yet withheld birds are the best kind: always around the corner but often just out of your eyesight. You see them just enough to know them well, but just rarely enough that each sighting is a day-maker. Right now that sweet spot is best represented by the black-capped chickadee, a former every-day sighting that is now few and far between. Cardinals and blue jays also fit into this category: easy to spot birds that everyone knows, but they aren’t so ubiquitous that you lose the magic.
Which brings us to the house sparrow. If you’re going to talk about common birds, you have to talk about house sparrows. They are everywhere. In my neighborhood, at the Richfield feeders, at Como Lake. Hopping around bushes, hopping across sidewalks, chirping from trees. As a noted backyard bird lover, it brings me shame to say that I don’t like these guys. I don’t hate them, but they are the only bird in the world that solicits no reaction from me. I see them, and I feel nothing. They aren’t particularly pretty or special, and they are so ever present right by my feet that I can’t help but grow jaded at their appearance. This is the exact argument people make against backyard birds, or I suppose in favor of more rare species: with so many types of birds out there, why be mesmerized by what’s always right in front of you? I don’t agree with this statement on its surface, but this is a rare instance where I have to admit defeat.
So, to answer the question in the headline: How common is too common? House sparrow level common, that’s what. If they were more interesting like the also-everywhere starling, or prettier like the also-everywhere robin, maybe it would be different, but they aren't and they're also far more common than either of them.
If you want to get excited about an old world sparrow species, I love dark eyed juncos. They mostly only appear in winter, and have a gorgeous soft gray plumage. Oh how I hope juncos pop up in my neighborhood this winter, but I’m not holding my breath. Urban birds are far less diverse and far more predictable, and once the Mears Park stream freezes up it will become less and less likely that birds outside of the neighborhood stick around the area at all.
I don't mean to sound hum drum, urban birding has a lot of benefits and surprises are always possible. It just makes me look forward to having a front yard and a feeder again. It makes me look forward to my next lake walk with my wife, or my next trip outside of the city. It makes me want to bus outside of downtown more often, even if it’s just to a Twin Cities park further from the hustle and bustle. I love my robins, and hope to see more of them, but god I miss chickadees.