By Robert Shapiro
The ubiquitous English House Sparrow is the most numerous bird species in the world, with an estimated population of 1.6 billion (over 500 million in the U.S.). Originally from the Middle East, they spread throughout Africa and Eurasia, and after being introduced to America during the 1850’s to control pest insects, quickly took up residence across the continent. Here in New York, there are multiple millions of them, because they have discovered that aside from thick vegetation, and large cracks and crevices, the open horizontal pipes on top of traffic light posts make perfect nests that protect them from larger bird predators that eat their young. Wherever you are in the five boroughs on any corner, if there is a traffic light, there is a family of Sparrows in its pipe! During Spring, if you look up you might catch sight of a hatchling sticking its head out and loudly begging for food. The only streetlights that are not occupied are the few landmarked ones that have sealed pipe-caps.
Of the few dozen species of sparrows that visit New York City, The English House Sparrow in a misnomer. They are actually Weaver Birds who make enormous woven nests for their size—unless it’s in a pipe. Another thing that differentiates them from other native birds is that they love to bathe in dry dirt—called dusting—which is a vestige from a practice that evolved from living in Saharan habitats where water was less abundant.
Two other super-successful species in our city are Starlings (also from Asia, Europe and Africa) and pigeons, also known as Rock Doves. Starlings were brought to Central Park in the 1890’s along with many other species mentioned in Shakespeare plays, but only the Starlings survived to spread from coast to coast (over 200 million in the U.S.). The pigeon (North Africa, India and Europe) was brought here by early settlers to be bred for food and many escaped and now thrive in urban areas where tall buildings resemble the cliffs that are their natural habitats. Pigeons, highly intelligent, incredibly powerful flyers and great navigators, have been war heroes who have finished intel missions while gravely wounded, and Starlings are also super smart and can imitate many noises, including other birds and sound much more like a human that any parrot.
Once you begin to learn about the more common species of birds here, you realize that they are only common, because they are so successful, but there is a bird living in the garden called St. Luke in the Field on the corner of Hudson and Barrow Streets that is one-in-a-million. So rare is this sighting that it has attracted birders from all over the tristate area. It is a beautiful piebald English House Sparrow that is decorated with many ivory white feathers. Many animals can be piebald, from horses to snakes, and the most recognizable is the Bald Eagle, but this sparrow is a complete anomaly. It spends the day noisily flying, dusting, drinking and eating in the garden.
Now, during the non-breeding season sparrows congregate by the dozens and a sizable population thrives at St. Lukes. This is also a great time to visit the garden, because right on schedule, on the southeast corner our rare Witch Hazel Tree is in full bloom creating a blaze of yellow among the normal February browns and evergreen trees and shrubs. This is the first tree to flower and will not disappoint even when buried in snow. If you happen to see me under it, ask for a tour of the garden. Even in winter, it’s full of wonder.