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Why All the Bird Hate?

Updated on June 10, 2018
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Invasive Species

Rock Pigeons, Invasive city dweller
Rock Pigeons, Invasive city dweller | Source
Cattle Egret, Invasive country dweller
Cattle Egret, Invasive country dweller | Source

What is Meant by Calling an Animal Invasive?

The first time I heard birders get super upset when I began to work at raising my birding knowledge was when they talked about invasive species. Some were very passionate about this. Just recently a new person to birding commented on all the remarks toward a picture of a Starlings on a birding website. “Why all the bird hate?” He asked.

Once when I commiserated with someone who believed that House Sparrows drove her Bluebirds away. I commented that it was sad but that was nature in action. She then strongly told me I was wrong. That invasive species was foreign to the habitat it now existed in, therefore it was acting against nature. Again, bird hate.

Referring to any bird or other animal is invasive has deliberate negative connotations. It is a buzz word for unwanted and in some way evil. Local birders, environmental groups as well as state and federal agencies have weighed in on the invasive and have found them somehow not part of nature they think should be protected. There are even articles about people that have taken this very seriously, doing their bit to get rid of the hated invasive.

Invader Songbirds

European Starling, Competes for cavity nesting sites
European Starling, Competes for cavity nesting sites | Source
House Sparrow, Competes for cavity nesting sites
House Sparrow, Competes for cavity nesting sites | Source

It’s About Being Motivated

When talking about invasive birds, those spreading the hate, so to speak, are doing so for four general reasons that are often interrelated.

  • The invasive species is out competing another.

This has been the rallying cry for saving the Spotted Owl from Barred Owls that have moved into Spotted Owl territorial ranges. The Spotted Owl is an endangered very specialized bird that has lived in old growth forests of the northwest. The vacuum left by their declines have drawn Barred Owls into the area, so many environmental groups and wildlife management authorities advocate killing any Barred Owl that moves into specified areas.

Mallard Ducks are birds that have spread to all parts of the world. Their spread seems to have happened naturally in ancient times. The Mallard is the direct ancestor of all domestic duck breeds except the Muscovy and many wild species. The invasive designation has to do with their willingness to breed with any duck domestic or wild. This breeding as lead to hybridization of species such as the American Black Duck, the Mottled Duck, the Hawaiian Duck and the Mexican Duck among others, which are relatives of the Mallard. Ownership of Mallards is presently banned in Florida to protect Mottled Ducks from further genetic pollution.

  • This invasive species’ population is moving into new territories.

Some birds expand into new territories on their own, irrelevant to other species declines.

Cattle Egrets originally came from Asia, Africa and Europe. They showed up in the Americas, flying across the Atlantic in 1877 to start colonies on the boundary of Guiana and Suriname. They reached North America around 1941. They are considered beneficial by most cattlemen. They remove fleas and ticks from livestock and have been proven to reduce flies around cattle in the same way. This relatively recent expansion is the reason for its designation as an invasive species. At present this expansion is being watched.

Other birds have expanded due to human action. The House Sparrow, once called an English Sparrow, was taken as pets and released all over the world by English travelers who wanted familiar birds where they relocated. In the 1850s the birds were brought to the U.S. to control insects. This was a mistake as sparrows are primarily seed eaters. They don’t migrate, but expand outward seeking new nesting sites and food.

European Starlings came to America in 1890 by the efforts of Shakespeare enthusiasts in New York. Eugene Schefflin was at the head of a group who wished to bring all the birds mentioned in the bard’s plays to America. Most of their efforts failed, but the Starling was their greatest success. By 1928 the Starlings had spread across the Mississippi River. By 1950 the U.S. Government had programs in effect to try to eradicate them using poison pellets, and other methods; but the Starling has 3 to 4 broods a year, which drives their populations up exponentially.

Both birds are cavity nesters and compete aggressively. They destroy eggs and kill adult birds to take over a good site. Because of this, they are considered invasive and said to be one of the main reasons for the declines in native bird populations such as Bluebirds, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Tree Swallows, Wrens, Chickadees and Titmice.

  • The invasive species is becoming a nuisance or is in the way of human activity.

Rock Pigeons are the birds you see in parks and parking lots. When you hear someone talking about flying rats, this is the species they are likely referring to. Originally native to Europe, Asia and West Africa, they have since, with our help, become a world-wide bird. They were brought to the Americas around 1600 as message carriers. They are another bird with a grain based diet, but they will also eat insects. They aren’t considered a threat to native birds, but they are considered pests, mainly because of their infinity to city living where their droppings are an eyesore and can cause damage to buildings and statues. Their listing as an invasive species has less to do with their being brought here as it has to do with being a nuisance when trying to keep parks clean. Cities set ordinances against feeding them and some set up seasonal trapping and mass kills.

Canada Geese are also referred to as invasive, due to our efforts to protect them. In the 19th century, the Canada Goose was declining badly due to over hunting. The giant Canada goose subspecies was believed to be extinct by the 1950s, but in 1962, a small flock was discovered in Rochester, Minnesota, by Harold Hanson. In 1964, the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center and Forrest Lee would headed the fight to bring the goose back from the brink with 64 breeding pairs of screened, high-quality birds. By the end of 1981, 6,000 Giant Canada geese had been released at 83 sites in 26 counties in North Dakota. Today they are further spread out with strong growing populations. Read my past article about Canada Geese here.

Most of these new populations, however, are no longer migratory, but resident to the areas they were reintroduced. The geese are now considered too successful, and a nuisance to air traffic, and urban areas where they nest and exhibit aggressive territorial behavior. The USDA oversees the annual killing of some 25,000 Canada geese nationwide to reduce local geese populations in targeted areas where they graze and nest.

  • A domestic species has become feral with a growing population.

The Mute Swans are also natives of Europe and Asia. They were brought to the Americas in the 1800s from Europe as ornamental domestic stock in parks and large estates. Over time some of these have become unowned or feral and are living wild. The swans primarily eat plant matter, including aquatic vegetation. This makes them a competitor for food with other waterfowl; a large aggressive competitor. New York State has a plan in place to eradicate the Mute Swan in the state by 2025; but it is being strongly attacked by citizen groups. At present, the Mute Swans are protected by conservation laws. No nests or birds may be handled or harmed without prior authorization. A revised plan for Mute Swan management in New York is presently being drafted. Michigan also has a high population of Mute Swans. These non-migratory birds are also growing in population to the point of crowding out native trumpeter Swans. Mute Swans, like the Canada Goose, are also highly territorial during nesting season and have attacked boats, kayakers and people on land who get too close to nesting sites.

Invader Water Birds

Mute Swan, Imported for their beauty
Mute Swan, Imported for their beauty | Source
Canada Geese, Raised from extinction to nuisance
Canada Geese, Raised from extinction to nuisance | Source
Mallard Duck, Mating with distant cousins is gene pollution
Mallard Duck, Mating with distant cousins is gene pollution | Source

It’s a Matter of Semantics

Terms used for various species that have expanded or moved from one area to another such as invasive, and genetic pollution are not really scientific terms. They are used by activist authors for emotional value or just as a favored designation. But, words have meaning and cause particular mindsets.

Brendon Larson addressed the use of using the term invasive species in his book Metaphors for Environmental Sustainability. “By framing invasive species as a problem out there, however, we are misled into overlooking how they are a symptom of ourselves.”

He further stated in chapter six that using militaristic terminology targets a species as the enemy. The discussion becomes polarized, black and white, blinding people to the whole picture. It creates environmental conflict. We start killing Barred Owls to supposedly protect Spotted Owls. We encourage eradication of geese populations we had previously spent years to increase. Then Larson pessimistically continued saying that a call to do away with fear appeals and militarism were likely doomed to failure as the need to make such metaphorical connections is the key to creating concern and obtaining funding. Now you see the real picture. Emotional appeals = funding.

It’s a Matter of Misdirection

I won’t sit here and dispute that Bluebirds and some other native species don’t lose out to competition with House Sparrows and Starlings. I am fully aware that people who keep nesting boxes have observed this directly. I understand the disappointment and heartbreak that comes from seeing dead birds and destroyed nests. But House Sparrows are not, despite the rhetoric on some bird sites, a major direct causation for species decreases. I suspect that the same goes for other birds that have been equally vilified.

This quote is from the American Humane Society from What to do About House Sparrows.

Some believe there are fewer native birds because of competition from sparrows. Certainly, there are instances where individual native birds came out the losers against house sparrows. And bluebirds did decline in the early 1900s when European starlings and house sparrows were getting established. As a result a few nest-box providers resort to extreme measures—killing house sparrows for the perceived crime of occupying nest boxes.

But, the idea that house sparrows are causing widespread declines in native songbird populations today is not proved. In fact, house sparrow numbers have been declining across the United States over the last few decades while eastern and mountain bluebird numbers are up. And, bluebirds are as successful fledging young where they have sparrows as neighbors (and) where they do not.

Mel White, a writer for the National Geographic, echoes sentiments I first read when reading a position paper from the American Bar Association (ABA) Animal Law Committee. He stated in his article North American Birds Declining as Threats Mount that while talk about cats, wind farms and tower lights make splashy headlines toward bird conservation, “they are distractions from a far more important problem.”

"To me, the top three threats to birds overall are habitat loss, habitat loss, and habitat loss," says Ken Rosenberg of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "We're losing the battle acre by acre."

Turning forests into farmland, converting conservation corridors back into corn fields because of the sudden price spike due to ethanol production and our ever expanding cities cause more problems for birds than any of the attention getting side issues. The real big picture issue would require real changes in the way we humans handle our affairs.

That’s why the ABA’s Animal Law Committee Stated (in a position paper no longer available on the internet), “Some (animal interest groups) insist that human activity (causing environmental problems) is too overwhelming to attempt to modify, and that instead, energies should be devoted to peripheral distractions.”

The Last Word

Again, as Brendon Larson said, we are overlooking how all the problems facing birds are symptoms of ourselves. The reason tower lights and wind farms are harming birds is because we built them. The reason glass windows cause bird deaths is because we haven’t chosen to use the newer bird safe windows. The reason bird habitat is declining is because of the ways we use and alter land. The reason House Sparrows and Starlings are even in this country to compete with native species is because we brought them here.

Some birders whose emotions and passions have been stirred to activist fever against Starlings, House Sparrows and other species won’t like what I’m saying. The ‘us versus them’ and ‘animal verses animal’ metaphor in bird conservation has been used a long time. Moving people away from such rhetoric won’t happen overnight no matter how many references and quotes I use. I understand that completely. A very experienced long time birder I respect took such exception to another article I wrote on this subject that she unfriended me.

I'm not saying that bird populations shouldn't be protected, monitored or that populations don't also need to be controlled, but the rhetoric of bird hate isn't good for birds or us. When we hate, we stop seeing a situation clearly and objectively. We become blinded with a destructive negative attitude that, with clever media manipulation, could so easily be enlarged and redirected to other species and even people, which Brendon Larson also warned against.

But, to answer the young man’s question, this is why the “bird hate” exists.

Happy Birding

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


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