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Facts in Five: For the Birds

periodiCALS, Vol. 7, Issue 1, 2017

Illustrated origami paper birds in the sky

Pigeons, crows, sparrows, starlings and killdeer: These city-dwelling species rank low in the pecking order for many birders. Although their successful adaptation to urban and suburban landscapes has rendered them ordinary and easily overlooked, they have hidden talents and creature culture worthy of a second glance. 

Pigeon

Rock pigeons’ cliff-dwelling prowess makes them adept at nesting in the eaves and window ledges of skyscrapers. Pigeons, along with only doves, flamingos, and some penguins, make ‘milk’ to feed their newly hatched offspring. Both male and female rock pigeons produce a liquid enriched with proteins, fats, antioxidants and antibodies to nourish chicks during their first week of life.

House Sparrow

Preferring nests under eaves, atop street lights, or in warehouses, house sparrows shun the dense forest for cities, towns, suburbs, and farms. They are adept at extremes. House sparrows have been observed breeding 2,100 feet underground in an English coal mine and feeding outside the 80th floor of the Empire State Building.

Crow

Equally at home in a forest or a garbage dump, American crows are highly social birds, and offspring may remain with their parents for up to six years before setting up a nest of their own. Researchers have found that crows retain a long-term memory of the faces of people who threaten them and teach others in their flock to scold and heckle on sight.

Starling

First brought to New York’s Central Park by Shakespeare enthusiasts in the 19th century, European starlings are now among the continent’s most numerous songbirds. Not only can they imitate other birds’ songs and animal sounds, they can also mimic phrases of human speech and snippets of music, leading some people, including Mozart, to keep them as pets.

Killdeer

The killdeer’s shorebird relatives nest on rocky shores and sandy beaches, but killdeer stake out the gravel of parking lots and city rooftops. Although they are known for their adaptation to hot, dry habitats—they even open their mouths to cool off, similar to how dogs pant—killdeer adults and chicks can swim well, even in moving water.

To learn more about urban bird species and bird habitat in cities or apply for a mini-grant for your community, join Celebrate Urban Birds, a program of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.