Is Social Distancing for the Birds? - Urban Avian Life During Covid-19
Coronavirus Springtime Slim Pickings
After driving the near empty freeways of South San Diego a few days ago - the roads having taken on a ghost-town feel because of the Governor's shelter in place order, I arrived at the post office, my place of employment. Upon going through the gate, I spied a rather lonesome looking Crow atop the fence that surrounds the facility. Although this was not an unusual sight - Corvus brachyrhynchos being a staple of North American suburban bird fauna from southern Canada to northern Mexico, this bird appeared somewhat forlorn. He was looking down at me inquisitively, as if to say Hey what's up with you monkeys? All the places I used to be able to get a free meal are empty, and now I got to hang around here hoping for a handout, because it's the only place I see a lot of humans. But this parking lot is slim pickings compared to those other spots.
The solitary aspect of this hungry crow made me wonder if there aren't other pandemic victims besides people, particularly among avian species. Although most folks don't notice them, there are several birds that have evolved to become dependent on humankind. With 7.8 billion people on the planet, this is normally a highly successful strategy, but when shopping malls, fast food establishments, park picnic tables, outdoor dining areas at businesses, and other such human-created habitats are abandoned because of a worldwide viral outbreak, the birds that scavenge there for sustenance must be feeling the squeeze too. Their easy food source has disappeared without warning, and this could eventually result in a culling of their numbers. The effect could be especially significant now in springtime, the height of breeding season.
Will this possible reduction be beneficial, with populations of species that are not human dependent recovering because of reduced competition? Or could it be detrimental, the die-off of parking lot scavengers causing a buildup of decay and disease in places usually picked clean by the feathered janitorial crew? Will certain of our garden pollinators also feel hunger pangs while we shutter ourselves indoors, causing a future dearth of favorite blooms and fruits?
Here is a short list of birds that benefit from mankind's concentrations, and might suffer from social distancing. Whether you consider them partners or pests, these species have evolved in symbiosis alongside us, and their reduction in numbers could have unforeseen consequences as we shelter in place.
House Sparrow - Street Sweeper or Rat with Wings?
As with many of the species on this list, the humble House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) plays to mixed reviews. It certainly won't win any beauty contests, its plumage being a study in brown drabness, composed of feathers as worn and weathered looking as the buildings it wedges its nests into.
The House Sparrow is reported to be one of the most common birds in the world, with a population of about 1.4 billion. The little songbird is joined at the hip with Homo sapiens, being completely synanthropic, or ecologically associated with humans. The bird's habitat range is essentially wherever people are present, in rural and urban settings.
The House Sparrow is built to consume seeds, human cultivated grains being very popular in its diet. As such, it has been denounced as an agricultural pest. In the state of Western Australia, every one of its number has been hunted down and eradicated, because of the threat it represents to crops.
But the House Sparrow is not a finicky eater at all, its menu being a varied one. It was introduced into New York City to control a moth infestation, bugs being a prominent source of its protein. Passer domesticus is murder on flies and aphids, creatures scorned as pests by people. The bird also savors human food scraps, such as the ever ubiquitous crumbs left behind by human diners. It is clever enough to figure out ways to get at them - such as learning to open automatic doors at supermarkets.
A severe downside of the House Sparrow is that, in its quest for maternity space it muscles out other cavity nesters. It is very aggressive in this regard, driving out or even killing previous occupants of suitable sites. In the United States, the once familiar Bluebird has been particularly harried by House Sparrow encroachment.
House Sparrow numbers could certainly stand the population decline caused by the reduction of humans in its usual haunts, but it is pretty clear this adaptable species will bounce back quickly, once people return to the food court.
Doves - Symbols of Peace or Pestilence?
Members of the family Columbidae, the pigeons and doves, have succeeded in flocking together with human kind, to the extent that they even share our households as pets. Again, their presence in human society garners different reactions, depending on the species. The small, gentle subset of the family known as Doves have been embraced by Christianity as a symbol of peace, or as an embodiment of the divine spirit. In contrast, the more hefty pigeons, particularly the familiar Rock Doves of parks and playgrounds, are viewed as the embodiment of disease on the wing. These floating feathered fecal factories cover the suburban landscape with messy droppings, and are often blamed for the spread of illnesses, such as meningitis.
In the United States, the sorrowful song of the diminutive, unassuming Mourning Dove can be heard from San Diego to Savannah. In recent years, however, its presence in urban gardens is possibly suppressed by increasing numbers of the invasive Eurasian Collared Dove. Certainly the ground feeding Mourning Doves benefit from the manicured landscape maintained by people - for instance, I had a pair raise a brood in a potted plant in my yard. And though they are not too proud to take a handout of bird feeder seeds, they are not as people-dependent as their larger, messier, more boisterous cousin, the Rock Dove.
Those familiar scourges, undoubtedly more hitched to humanity, may suffer a decrease in numbers as well-meaning, but probably ill advised bread-crumb throwers disappear from parks and hunker down at home. Again, the ultimate survivability of the Rock Dove in the post Covid-19 world is not in question, but maybe those unsightly splatters on your automobile will decrease in frequency as the flying sewer pipes become scarce.
Sugar-free Spring for Disappointed Hummingbirds?
Many people have experienced an extreme reaction to the coronavirus. Not only are they social distancing past the recommended six feet, but they have cut themselves off completely from mankind, even being afraid to leave the house at all.
Unfortunately for certain hyperactive avians who have become dependent on humans for a quick, readily available snack, many hummingbird feeders have been left hanging limp and empty as a result, swaying in the spring breeze like soundless plastic wind chimes. No doubt many a hummer has buzzed anxiously toward his favorite food source this spring, only to depart the yard disappointed after sucking air from a sugarless tube.
But those who who regularly provide handouts to hummers need not worry while quaking quietly in quarantine. It is true that ranges expand and winter survival rises for hummingbirds when feeders are present, but these birds are not entirely dependent on sugar water mixed by human hands. One source claims they only receive 20% of their daily nutritional intake from feeders, though it is a wonder that a diet of pure glucose, one that would throw me into a diabetic coma if consumed daily, could be called "nutritional."
Maybe the high-strung members of Trochilidae are better off over the long haul if they have to search far and wide for their provender. Not only will the flowers they frequent provide a better, more natural product, but the exercise from buzzing back and forth will certainly help burn off those empty calories.
Crowing About Coronavirus
Whether you notice them or not, Crows and their cousins - Ravens, Jays, and don't forget Magpies, are inseparable from the human experience. Even when members of the Corvidae inhabit remote areas, they flock toward whatever sparse scattering of humanity may be in the vicinity, hoping for a handout. I have seen Stellers Jays patrolling campgrounds in the local San Diego mountains, and Clarks Nutcrackers frequenting the scenic overlooks in Rocky Mountain National Park. Once, at Yellowstone, I encountered a Raven who had learned to pose for pictures with people in exchange for snacks.
The omnivorous birds in this family are intelligent and adaptable, as well as great actors, having perfected the "woe is me" look, to work the sympathy of their bipedal benefactors. Crows and their cousins have always been and always will be camp followers, trailing our caravans across the landscape, roosting in the towering trees above our shopping malls, going wherever we go.
There is evidence that Corvids give back what they take. Native Americans on the hunt were led to food sources by these avians. Not being big enough to bring down an elk themselves, their birds-eye-view of the terrain enabled them to spot where the game was hiding. Then, once their two legged friends took down a carcass they swooped down to feast on the scraps. Certain Vietnamese people still use crows today, employing them like dogs to guard their homes.
So tight is this relationship between Crow and Man that they have worked their way into humanity's cultural psyche. In many cultures, Crows figure prominently in mythology - the Norse god Odin kept company with the far flying Ravens Huginn and Muninn, and they are regarded in other traditions across the globe as sacred beings.
Now that an artificial wall has been put in place between people and our Corvid companions, how will the birds be affected? One study claims that anthropogenic food - meaning the discarded waste products of human consumption, accounts for up to 65% of the urban crow's diet. These guys are no dummies, even though they are quite capable of digging for grubs themselves, they would rather go where they can get the grub without much effort. That is why they station themselves in fast food parking lots, knowing that eventually somebody is going to get careless and drop their french fries.
There is a cost to this relationship, however. Another study found that a crow's "...plasma blood cholesterol levels increased in correlation with the amount of impervious surface," meaning pavement, a fancy scientific term for urbanization. In other words, city crows have a high fat diet, a result of munching on our thrown away junk food. But don't worry, these birds are not dropping out of the sky from heart attacks. The same study noted that the long term survival rate for our fat feathered fiends is not affected by a diet your doctor would scowl at, if he knew you were doing it.
Accordingly, the paucity of people on the streets during coronavirus represents a mixed blessing for Crows and their kin. On the one hand, perhaps fewer nestlings will survive the crisis this spring, as less food is available for their parents to forage. On the other, those babies that do survive will be leaner and meaner, probably better equipped to survive over the long haul, as they have to work harder to find food sources.
On a positive note, bird life in general will probably profit from a reduction of Crows. In addition to being unrepentant french fry munchers, Corvids are notorious nest raiders. They are very fond of an early morning omelette, accompanied by a side dish of a nestling or two. The Phoebes nesting in my eaves, these little flycatchers being victims of hungry crows marauding their homes in the past, may breathe a sigh of relief when there aren't quite as many of the black bandits around.
Brewers Blackbird - Peaceful Parking Lot Patron
About twenty years ago, when I was working security at a home-construction site, Brewers Blackbirds would stride into the garage in which I stationed myself to partake of my lunch. Because the birds are a mere nine inches in length, there was plenty to go around. They are also very polite and meek little fellows, unlike their cousins the pushy cowbirds and loudmouthed grackles, so I did not mind sharing my food. In fact, I enjoyed their unobtrusive company.
If you are sipping coffee outdoors at a Southern California Starbucks you will see these gentle Icterids strutting about beneath your seat, patiently waiting for you to drop something. Unlike cowbirds, they will not fly up on the table and demand it. Even though our BBs maintained a polite social distance before the coronavirus crisis, they are not frightened of humans. I once saw a You-Tube clip of a man who had conditioned the birds to drink beer out of the can in his hand. Alas, I can't find that video anymore, but below is footage of a lovely young lady who made friends with some blackbirds.
There are plenty of You Tube videos showing people getting dive bombed by Brewer's Blackbirds when they get too close to their nests, but even the best of friends get irate when they think you are messing with their children. For the most part BBs are quite at ease among our kind, frequenting parks, outdoor cafes, even wandering into airports.
Unfortunately, during the coronavirus outbreak this species will definitely not benefit from human isolation. Brewers Blackbirds numbers declined 2% per year between 1966 and 2014, so they were already in trouble. There are several theories for this downturn in numbers, but I suspect that increasing competition with great-tailed grackles, a more aggressive parking lot dweller working its way west, may be responsible for the decline. And now, in the present crisis, after descending on promising parking lots in their dwindling droves, our friendly BBs may be coming home empty handed.
For only the second occasion on this list, I really cannot find anything negative to say about the bird. Brewers Blackbirds may beg for a living, but they don't bully other birds out of their nests. What they do best is reduce the amount of litter in your gathering spots, as well as decreasing the number of insects buzzing around while you finish that taco, as they are known to take a bug or two. Altogether, the disappearance of these fine fellows from our favorite haunts would be a sad moment, and I hope that our absence from their feeding grounds does not further increase the species' scarcity.
Goodbye or Good-Riddance?
This list is not all conclusive, there are probably several more birds that will at least be marginally affected by our temporary exodus. One such human-dependent bird I deliberately left out was the seagull, because I cannot find any redeeming qualities to counter its voracious attacks on other species' eggs and chicks. To any gulls moving on to other spots during the coronavirus crisis I say - Good riddance!
Of course, Good Riddance is exactly what the great majority of bird species, those who are not helped, but hindered from our presence, will be thinking as they take note of our absence from their list of daily woes. By far, the species that represents the greatest threat to the well being of bird life is Homo sapiens. Maybe, in this temporary respite from us invading, bulldozing and uprooting their habitats, the feathered life forms that share our planet can take a vacation, at least, from the stress our presence imposes upon them.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.