There are a couple of birds that I actually do not like, amazing as it may seem. The two are the European starling and the house sparrow. Why, you ask? Well, neither species is native and both are overly aggressive. This aggression is detrimental to many of our native songbirds.
The European starling was introduced to the U.S. in 1890. The story goes that a British immigrant missed the bird so he had a pair of starlings brought to the U.S. and released in Central Park. A similar story is recorded for the English or house sparrow. This species was introduced from Great Britain to Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1851. Now both of these species are found throughout the U.S. The house sparrow and European starling’s spread around our country was due to their incredible ability to adapt. Both species are common around habitats that have been altered by man: cities, suburbs, farms, parks, mowed fields and orchards to name a few. Neither the European starling nor the house sparrow can be found in truly wild areas of this country, however if there is a building that houses a forest ranger or equipment on the edge of the wilderness, a pair of house sparrows or starlings will eventually find it.
Sturnus vulgaris is the Latin name for the European starling and vulgaris fits. Although the translation of vulgaris is common, vulgar is what I see. This species, according to the Birds of Massachusetts, is “currently among the most widespread and numerous nesting birds in the state.” This is not good as they compete with our native birds for nest sites and food. The starling will successfully use the nest cavities, which would be otherwise occupied by great-crested flycatchers, eastern bluebirds, northern flickers, eastern screech owls and hairy, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, and even American kestrels. European starlings aggressively fight and win any confrontation over the use of these nest sites.
Passer domesticus, or English or house sparrows according to Griscom & Snyder, were brought to Boston in 1868 and 1869 to try to control insect pests and gypsy moths in particular. Right away birders saw that the house sparrow was affecting the population of tree swallows, house wrens and eastern bluebirds. The house sparrows are so aggressive that they will oust or kill any species that is using a nesting cavity that they chose to use. The house sparrow will rail other birds away from the feeder and they have even been known to snitch a worm from an American robin’s bill! Although ornithologists show that the English or house sparrow is on the decline in the U.S., it is still common and a true pest. I have heard that the English sparrow is becoming rare in Great Britain so perhaps we can capture many of these sparrows, load them on a jet and send them back to England. And while we are at it, send a few European starlings along for the ride.
Two unusual birds were seen this last week. Peter Huntington spotted a scissor-tailed flycatcher at Pond View Farm in the early afternoon of June 26. Sarah Mayhew tried to find and photograph the bird on the following day to no avail.
John Lang called to say he had seen “a white tropicbird” off Lobsterville by Dogfish Bar back on June 23. Hopefully other fishermen or birders might see this bird again and call in with more details or a photo. It was probably a red-billed tropicbird, but until we get further information it will remain “a white tropicbird.”
Paul Wales spotted a little blue heron at Hickory Cove on Cape Pogue Bay on June 18. He also added that a flock of eight to 10 cedar waxwings were pigging out on the small wild strawberries in his Chappaquiddick lawn.
Flip Harrington spotted his first greater shearwater of the season off Gay Head on June 26. He also spotted both black and white-winged scoters in the same area.
John Christensen was sailing off Lake Tashmoo last week and spotted several birds flitting on the water. The description suggested Wilson’s storm petrels, although it is possible they were Leach’s storm petrels which are very similar and, to my knowledge, still nest on Penikese Island.
Will Graves of Tea Lane called to say he heard a bobwhite near his Chilmark home on June 27 and then his wife saw one the following day. Will noted that it was the first he had heard or seen in at least 10 years!
On July 1 Sheila Muldaur sent a photograph of two bobwhites she saw off Meeting House Road. The male was in a tree and the female on the ground. Hopefully the male will teach the female to head up into the trees for protection from predators.
George Phillips called into the hotline to report that he spotted a Baltimore oriole and northern flicker on Poucha Road in Katama on June 25. He also added that gold and house finches sat out the storm on the top of a cedar tree on June 28.
Bill Post went out to Crackatucket Cove on June 28 and found a killdeer, two willets, two pairs of yellow warblers, two pairs of common yellowthroats but no willow flycatcher.
Larry Hepler was astounded to watch an osprey swoop down on what was left of a three week old raccoon skin and carry it off toward its nest. We all know that ospreys love to “decorate” their nests with odd bits and pieces but little did we know that we had Davy Crockett osprey in the area!
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan B. Whiting is co-author of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her website is vineyardbirds2.com.