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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The urban birds you may see every day

Red-winged Blackbird

Eurasian Collared Dove
Birds are everywhere in north Texas, even highly-developed areas. They may not always be the prettiest, best-behaved species. After all, different kinds of birds prefer different environments, which explains what are often called “urban birds” in environments of concrete, exhaust fumes, loud noises and garbage.


Actually, there are three species of grackles; but they all look pretty much the same, and they don’t care what you call them.  About 25 years ago, Denton had no Grackles. They gradually expanded their range northward from the gulf coast, adapting well to living in built-up urban areas as the natural vegetation was covered by development.

Since Grackles are bigger than most other birds, they tend to frighten songbirds away. They aren’t very picky about what they eat (stale fries, garbage etc.), so they fit right in to an urban environment.


What we call pigeons are closely related to Mourning Doves. They’re correctly called “rock pigeons” or “rock doves” and are a major food source for city-dwelling hawks and falcons. According to fossil records their ancestors have been on earth about 310,000 years, and were domesticated about 5000 years ago.  The species was brought to this continent, for some unknown reason, by European settlers in the early 1600s.

            Their close relatives, White-winged Doves and Eurasian Collared Doves, are also adept at fitting into the urban environment. Until a few years ago, they were never seen in north Texas.


            Like Kudzu vine and Dutch Elm disease, Starlings didn’t appear naturally in this hemisphere. An eccentric Shakespeare enthusiast released about 100 Starlings in New York in the 1890s. He thought it was a clever idea to bring to the “New World” every species mentioned in Shakespeare’s writings. Now we have over 200 million of them.    In Europe, from whence they came, Starlings are actually decreasing in number.

House sparrows;

House sparrows aren’t really sparrows. True sparrows migrate here each winter. What we call a house sparrow is really a weaver-finch, and was imported from England in 1850, to combat a plague of insects in Brooklyn.  Galveston also imported some in 1860. By 1880, they were everywhere in the city, and their nests had clogged up that city’s water system.

North Texas hosts several species of true sparrows (Chipping Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Harris’ Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow etc.) which are actually quite attractive, and all migrate northward for the summer.


This bird is being slandered for adapting too well. Instead of building its own nest and nurturing its own nestlings, Cowbirds lay eggs in nests of other species, who incubate and raise them unknowingly.

Why?  For centuries they followed nomadic herds of buffalo (they attracted lots of insects) since that’s where the food was. They simply couldn’t stay in one place (like on a nest) for very long since the buffalo moved continuously, so they adapted.

 Crows & “blackbirds”;

            In normal usage, any bird that’s mostly black and somewhat aggressive is a “blackbird”. Often a large flock of “blackbirds” may occupy a single roost, and wear out their welcome rapidly with the noise and droppings. Actually such a flock may contain three or four kinds of birds with one dominant species; mostly Grackles or mostly Cowbirds. But there may be some Red-winged Blackbirds, Brewer’s Blackbirds or Bob-o-links mixed in. They’re all “icterids” and they’re “birds of a feather”.

There may be a number of Crows too, although they aren’t technically icterids.  (We’ve reached the point where you don’t really care, haven’t we?)


The vulture (most numerous here is the Turkey Vulture) has an awful reputation, but it’s one of my favorite birds since they soar so gracefully on their 6-foot wingspans; riding invisible air currents.  Old movies incorrectly refer to them as buzzards. Vultures clearly fill an ecological niche as they search for “less-than-fresh” food such as roadkill.

Hundreds of them usually roost together overnight, and spread their large wings out in the morning to catch the sun and warm up. If you’re lucky enough to see one up close, check out the featherless head and neck.  It’s evolved that way so it doesn’t get ”food” on itself that can harbor bugs or weigh it down.


OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at in Denton.


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