Three bird species dominate the Philly streetscape. On nearly every block, in front of every rowhouse, even in Center City, you can find house sparrows (Passer domesticus), starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), and pigeons (Columba livia).
Sparrows, starlings, and pigeons are so common that we tend to overlook them, but they offer a great opportunity for nature lovers to study birds right at home. They also can be a great gateway to observing other species of birds.
You already know these birds: house sparrows are the little brown birds that you see everywhere. The males have a black bib, while the females have a more plain brown pattern.
Starlings are black with white spots (like stars). Males in the breeding season develop an iridescent sheen like oil on water, and young birds are dark brown. They walk with big steps and have relatively short wings that make them look a bit like fighter jets in the air.
And of course pigeons are pigeons. The basic model comes in gray with black bars across the wings and an iridescent rose and green neck, but you’ll find them in white, tan, and a wide range of combinations.
Sparrows and pigeons evolved as seed eaters but are happy to eat foods we make from seeds (grain) and leave on the sidewalk, like pretzels, pizza crusts, rice, or bread crumbs. Starlings eat a wider variety of food, and you can see them stalking through grassy yards or fields, probing with their bills to find worms and bugs. They also scavenge in trash and pick up meatier foods we leave on the ground. If you see black birds picking the flesh off discarded chicken wings, those are starlings.
All three species nest on or in human structures. House sparrows and starlings are cavity nesters. This means they nest in holes, and buildings have plenty of holes and gaps that can fit starling or sparrow nests. Pigeons look for secluded ledges to build open nests.
Nesting starts pretty early, and in late February or early March you can see sparrows and starlings claiming nest holes and singing. House sparrows don’t have much of a song - a repetitive “CHEEP!” that will wake your kids up too early in the morning. Starlings, however, are virtuosos, singing endless combinations of whistles and pops, with imitations of other birds or urban sounds mixed in. If a bird on a telephone wire sings like a fire engine for a second, that’s a starling. Pigeon males strut their stuff on the ground, cooing and putting on a good show to woo their mates.
Fledglings appear later in spring and keep on appearing as these birds crank out clutch after clutch of eggs. Fledglings look like slightly fluffier, plainer versions of their parents. At first they might not fly well. You can find them doing their best to hide from cats (need another reason to keep cats inside?) and other predators while they get better at flying. If you find a fledgling, leave it alone. It’s supposed to be on the ground.
As the weather cools down in the fall these birds form flocks. You can find dozens of sparrows hanging out together in bushes that protect them from predators or foraging in grass or weedy lots together. Dozens of pigeons will hang out together on telephone wires, and starlings can form flocks with hundreds, even thousands of birds (these are called “murmurations”).
History with Humans
All of these three bird species were introduced to North America from Europe, where they are native.
Pigeons (sometimes called rock pigeons or rock doves) were domesticated thousands of years ago for their meat. Free flying pigeons were (and still are) encouraged to nest in special buildings with open windows and lots of little cubbies on the walls (hence the word “pigeonhole”). These buildings are called dovecotes. People would take and eat the nestlings, called squab, just as they were getting ready to fledge. Of course some of the pigeons decided to nest other places, and over time feral flocks developed. Pigeons bred for their fancy plumage and flying skills also joined these feral flocks, which is what gives our urban pigeon flocks such diverse colors and patterns.
House sparrows (sometimes called English sparrows) were brought over to North American in the late 1800s and released in several cities to help control caterpillars that were eating leaves on street trees (for more about Philadelphia’s sparrow introductions, here’s an article in Grid Magazine). That didn’t work - house sparrows didn’t make a dent in the caterpillar population - but the sparrows thrived and spread out across the continent.
Eurasian starlings were released in Central Park in New York City in the early 1890s. Releasing exotic birds to see if they would get established here was a fad back then, and the starlings are one of the few species that managed to stick around. They quickly spread across North America.
Observing Sparrows, Starlings, and Pigeons
It is super easy to observe all three of these species. Basically all you have to do is watch them and listen to them. You don’t even need binoculars, but these birds do present a great opportunity to practice using binoculars close to home.
Living With Sparrows, Starlings, and Pigeons
None of these pose major problems to us, and all three are well adapted to living with us. Pigeons can be annoying when they hang out in large numbers and their droppings accumulate, but there are ways to deal with that, from stringing up netting to keep them away or putting up those little plastic spikes so they won’t land.
If you want to protect these and native bird species that might need a little more help living in the city, consider making your windows more visible to birds so they don’t smack into them (learn more at Bird Safe Philly). Plant more native plants, which provide food for native insects, which are food for native birds. AND, as always, keep your cat inside, and don’t feed stray cats.
Check out BirdPhilly.org for more about birding in Philadelphia. You can find a birding walk near you and get tips and guidance from experienced local birders. You can also join the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, which meets monthly and is another great way to connect with local birders.