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Public Enemies?

The couple that bathes together…. (By Kim (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Depends on your perspective. Take, for example, the humble but cheeky-with-it UK House Sparrow (passer domesticus). Beloved in Great Britain where it is believed to be in decline. Who could think ill of anything with “domesticus” in its name? But in the USA, it is public enemy number one. Why? Because of these guys–

….or dines together… (By Gary Irwin (originally posted to Flickr as Eastern Bluebirds) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sialia sialis. Or, in the photo above the Eastern Bluebird. There are also Western and  Mountain Bluebirds (Sialia Mexicana, Sialia currucoides). As in The Bluebird of Happiness. As in a much loved state bird of many American states.

Is this blue enough for you? (By Peter Wallack (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

As in harassed to a dangerous degree by the British House Sparrow and Starling (another bird protected in the UK, much loved of Autumn Watch for its group murmerations, and mentioned by me here and here).

Birds from England were released in Central Park in New York City in 1852, as part of a Europeanisation movement implemented by the American Acclimatization Society.  As a result the House Sparrow is one of the most populous birds in North America. Unfortunately to the detriment of the bluebird whose nests are continuously raided by sparrows as both are cavity nesters, raising their chicks in tree hollows, holes in cliffs etc (bees could also be considered cavity nesters).

I hadn’t realized the degree to which there is a popular dislike of sparrows and starlings in the USA until my recent very quick family visit. We learned about a bunch of different birds by watching them from my mother’s kitchen window: juncos, blue jays, cardinals, chickadees, titmice. We were also able to learn more about the behavior of crows as a family group. My mother has even had a flock of wild turkeys in her yard, fighting over a turnip she had thrown out.

We did not see any bluebirds, but we did see sparrows and starlings. And when we read any article on the bluebird, they invariably mentioned the fierce competition with sparrows and starlings usually to the detriment of the bluebird. I don’t know if my blogging buddy, Bluebird Annie, assiduous watcher of birds and caretaker of bluebird nest sites, would be horrified to know that one member of the  American Acclimatization Society built and erected nest boxes for English sparrows around Manhattan. The Wikipedia article about the Society quotes words and phrases about the release of Shakespeare’s birds especially, such as “lunatic,” “infamous,” “most notorious introduction,” and “the canonic cautionary tale of biological pollution.”

Et Tu, Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Loved and protected in the US where the red squirrel is considered the vicious rodent. Fair game for anyone with a gun or poison here. I have to admit it being somewhat of a nemesis in our own yard where it frequently gnaws through bird feeders. We haven’t exactly made peace with the little characters, more a kind of truce: as long as we keep them in peanuts, they leave the feeders alone. In fact, Jo commented on how well-upholstered our squirrels looked (we had been thinking their American brethren looked a bit on the skinny side). Any how, they do amuse us, as does the translation of their Latin name, derived from Greek words, skia meaning shadow and oura meaning tail, presumably reflecting the common pose of the squirrel

In the shadow of my tail. Get it? (Joe Ravi [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

This scourge of red squirrels in the UK was supposedly first released into the UK in Henbury Park, Cheshire in 1876. I have not been able to discover why exactly, although some sites mention the Victorian interest in exotic species. The time period and interest would certainly chime with the releases in the US.

But should they be public enemies?
You will find articles in both countries maintaining that the non-natives-squirrel and bird alike-may not be the sole reason for the failure to thrive of the natives. For instance, some scientists maintain that the disappearance of the types of forest where red squirrels thrive has as much to do with their disappearance in England (Woodlands.co.uk presents a balanced view). Red squirrels were also hunted up until 1927.

I have not found any research that lets the sparrow and the starling off the hook in the US. I had thought that grey squirrel haters in the UK could be particularly virulent, but that was before I read websites espousing similar murderous acts in the US against sparrows and starlings (would now be the wrong time to confess that my husband fed the sparrows in the Old North Church Cemetery across from our hotel bits of bread? Let’s call it a bit of counter-revolutionary support for his winged British brethren. Forgive him, Annie!)

A lesson to be learned?
I do feel there must be a lesson in here some place. Especially when you consider the native species who are also regarded as public enemies in their own countries: the magpie, the crow. I have spent many hours watching the first, and only a few watching the second, but they are endlessly fascinating creatures: the male/female magpie team conducive to efficient feeding and I-got-your-back-protection (I am still mourning a pair or recently disappeared magpies from our yard); the family unit of the crows, each with its own job and able to see off a hawk while doing it (in my mother’s yard–hawk up in tree caused the disappearance of all the little birds in the yard. But hawk soon disappeared as right in the branch above it, three crows spoiling for a fight). I have mentioned this before in the previous post, but when you see a mother Coot peck one of her own chicks to death because it’s too much to feed, then you feel like giving crows and magpies a pass.

And those gray squirrels, yes, it is just about a truce we have with them.  But what is native and non-native now? How long can a species be in a country before it can be considered native? 100 years? 200 years? After all, the honeybee is not native to North America, but because it’s a “good” species, we’ll take it. But, really, is that the way nature works? Just a thought…

Speaking of birds…
Like that sexist segue? Taking issue with the way women are portrayed again. Any of you watching The Bridge? Seen Homeland? Or Big Bang Theory? Or the BBC’s Sherlock?  See where I am going with this? If not, I will explain: note how male main characters, as part of their sociopathic, autistically, bi-polar tendencies, are usually asexual, in fact rather repulsed by the act. Female characters of the same tendencies exhibit nympho-like behavior usually evident in their preference for Looking-for-Mr-Goodbar sex with strangers they meet in bars.  I’m just saying….

But let’s not end on a sour note…

If the gray squirrel is good enough for Clint Eastwood, then who are we to argue?

(not sure if this is a legal link. Waiting for the Ellen people to come after me. Preferably with a free gift)


11 thoughts on “Public Enemies?

  1. Great post! It’s funny you speak of the squirrel in with this post on the birds. Here in our part of the woods of the mountains of Virginia, USA, we have a squirrel who determined the best path to reach one of our bird feeders. The squirrel starts out at a lilac bush, climbs up to our roof, which is two stories up. The squirrel then saunters over to a nearby second roof (about 40 feet away), walks along the roof line down to the edge near the chimney, and then flies through the air over the edge of the gutter, down to a wrought iron scrolled bar that hangs out from the roof line about eight feet off the ground. A bird feeder is attached to the iron bar with a pulley, which we use to lower the bird feeder to fill it when needed. The idea was to keep the squirrels out. Yeah, right! Anyway, this little squirrel has impressed us so with his (or is it a her?) feats of acrobatics that we leave it alone. We keep the feeder filled for the birds, and an occasional surprise nut for the squirrel. The squirrel leaves enough for the birds. It’s been amazing watching when the birds come to feast, the squirrel leaves. We felt like this squirrel has earned its stripes to since it figured out how to travel about 80 feet from lilac bush to its goal. All animals are amazing!

    Posted by Pam B. Newberry | January 27, 2014, 1:27 am
  2. amazing bird photography.. glad i found your blog.. eve

    Posted by E.D. | February 1, 2014, 4:26 pm
  3. Those bluebirds are amazing! We do have house sparrows nesting in our porch (in the UK), and they are fun to watch – I’d no idea they were such a problem in the US.

    Posted by alderandash | February 10, 2014, 4:30 pm
    • Nor did I until another blogger pointed it out and during our recent visit to the States. We have a gang of sparrows who are regular visitors to our garden. We’ve just bought a nesting box and are still trying to decide where to put it….

      Posted by mylatinnotebook | February 10, 2014, 4:33 pm
  4. I just found this article and agree with you on the question of when certain species become native. In general, we tend to accept a ‘good’ non-native species without thinking twice. I found Grey squirrels to be very intelligent as well as annoying. They’ve very quickly dismantled many of my bird feeders but that is as far as the nuisance goes here. But the House Sparrow is another story. They pick off young flower and vegetable buds, raid our feeders, chase other birds relentlessly (in my case Bluebirds and House Wrens) out of their nests even after these birds have already laid eggs. It’s heartbroken to see a nest pulled out, cracked eggs on the ground (pecked open), bloody baby birds, and grown birds feathers pulled out. Don’t get me wrong, I love birds but I won’t tolerate House sparrows after I have witnessed their bullying behavior in my garden.

    Posted by P&B | February 12, 2014, 3:16 pm
    • It is a painful thing to witness, I absolutely agree. As I mentioned in the post, I had seen a mother coot peck her own chick to death. The little one kept coming after her only to receive more pecks. That was the most heart-rending thing of all, to see it continue to follow its mother in utmost trust. I saw that on TV and was quite upset. So I understand your reaction. It is difficult to put these things in perspective especially where defenseless babies are involved.

      Posted by mylatinnotebook | February 12, 2014, 3:34 pm
  5. What a great post, thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Emma Sarah Tennant | March 5, 2014, 7:34 pm

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