Exotic birds are species that are not native to our area. They have been imported to the United States. Common examples are the parrots in Miami and Los Angeles, and in our area: Mute Swan, Ring-necked Pheasant, Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Starling and House Sparrow. The impact of these exotics varies with the species, and how prolific they are. Here we'll look more closely at the three most common of these exotics.
A bird you're likely to find in almost every town in the United States is the House Sparrow. This bird is native to Europe, and was introduced by home-sick immigrants to the Brooklyn area in the 1850s. It was considered beautiful, and many hoped it would control insect pests. The introduced birds thrived in their new environment, and spread rapidly. Within 50 years you could find them in every state, and it became the most abundant species in the United States, feeding on grain and insects. Since then, they have declined in numbers with the advent of different farming practices and the advent of the automobile -- fewer horses in town meant less grain and insects to eat. House Sparrows are fairly small at 6.25 inches in length. The males have a gray cap, rufous nape, black throat and cream undersides. They nest in just about any kind of sheltered cavity, and actively take over bluebird, swallow and martin nests, often destroying eggs and pushing out nestlings.
The European Starling is another abundant bird in towns and rural areas, and has had the most severe impact on our native species. The American Acclimatization Society had the goal, in the 1890s, of establishing every bird in the U.S., which had been mentioned in Shakespeare's works. They, too, were released in New York, and soon spread throughout the states. Starlings are 8.5 inches in length, with long pointed bills and short square tails. During the breeding season they are a shimmering greenish-black and purples with a yellow bill; in the winter they have brown wings and small white spots over their black bodies, and their bills turn black. Like the House Sparrow, they nest in just about any kind of protected cavity. Being larger than House Sparrows, they are even more aggressive in displacing other cavity-nesting species, including woodpeckers, bluebirds and swallows. Starlings will often form huge flocks with American Robins, grackles, cowbirds and other blackbirds.
The Rock Pigeon is a most familiar bird to city dwellers. It was brought from Europe by colonists in the 1600s, likely as a source of food. A number escaped from domestication, bred successfully, and have become the city pigeons that detractors now call flying rats. It's a good-sized bird at 12.5 inches long, with a wingspan of 28 inches. It nests on narrow ledges of buildings and bridges. Pigeon droppings can cause a lot of damage, eating away at paint and metal, and eroding stone -- the reason you see a lot of wires and fencing on some buildings. The feces can also harbor disease-causing parasites, which accumulate where there are large pigeon populations. Some locales have tried falcons and hawks to control their pigeon populations. More commonly used tactics are noise makers and poisons.
Current regional sightings
March is the beginning of migration for many species. Waterfowl and gulls depart, and the first warblers like Louisiana Waterthrush return. Look for loons and scoters in the larger lakes like Rend and Crab Orchard. Good numbers of Bonaparte's Gulls have been seen at the Carbondale Reservoir, Crab Orchard Spillway and Rend Lake.
If you're looking for additional ideas about where to go birding in southern Illinois, consider my new book, "Finding Birds in Southern Illinois." It's available at southwestbirders.com.
• Carbondale is my hometown, where I started birding over 50 years ago. I spent an exciting 16 years as a bird guide, and have penned bird-finding books for counties and locales in Arizona, California, and Illinois. I currently reside in Yuma, Arizona, where you can reach me at Henry_Detwiler@yahoo.com.