birdwatching tips for city dwellers

Birdwatching Tips for City Dwellers: Urban Spotting

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Birding isn’t just for those who live in the country, it’s for everyone, including those who live in the largest cities, with buildings as far as the eye can see.

City parks and open areas can often contain more biodiversity, but even busy neighborhoods can produce bird sightings, and all birds can be appreciated as you learn more about them.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common birds in North America’s urban settings.

Key Takeaways

  • Birding isn’t just a hobby for the dense forest, tropical coast, or open prairies. Bird enthusiasts living in the city may not even need to leave the downtown to see birds.
  • Among the most common birds found in cities are house sparrows, rock pigeons, American crows, mallards, Canada geese, and various species of gulls.
  • Even the most common birds may be more interesting than meets the eye. Think, for example, about the crow’s intelligence or the pigeon’s history of use by the military.

House Sparrow

House Sparrow
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

This list probably couldn’t start anywhere other than the house sparrow, one of the most common birds across the world, including North America since its unfortunate introduction to the continent for the first time in the 1800s.

In 1851, the house sparrow was first released in Brooklyn before additional ill-fated releases in San Francisco and Salt Lake City in the 1870s helped this sparrow spread like wildfire.

These chunky sparrows, which are not closely related to North America’s native sparrows, are incredibly common in cities like the ones where they were originally released. They’re right at home visiting a sparse tree or hopping along the concrete to pick up scraps of food.

Next time you see a group of brown sparrows in what seems to be a less-than-bird-friendly habitat, look for the male house sparrow’s black eye mask that stretches to the chin, a gray face and underside and a chestnut brown patch on the nape.

Hopefully, you’re seeing native sparrows like song sparrows or chipping sparrows, which can occupy habitat in city parks, but if you’re just walking down a busy city street, there’s a good chance you’re seeing house sparrows.

Females are light brown throughout with patterned wings, so males are more easily distinguished.

While they’re not typically appreciated by birders, every bird species has something that makes it interesting, though we’d rather see native birds.

The house sparrow’s most interesting feature is its social units, described by the National Audubon Society as “like a military unit,” organized by which male has the largest black facial patch.

Birds with larger facial patches get better food and breeding opportunities. Read more on that from Audubon here.

In a small section of the Midwest – mostly around St. Louis – the house sparrow’s cousin, the Eurasian tree sparrow, has also established itself.

Mallard and Canada goose

Mallard Ducks
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

America’s most common duck and goose species are mainstays in public parks, flooded ditches, and overhead as they move from one water source to another.

Mallards may even lay nests away from the water in human-made habitats like gardens or flower pots, and humans can have testy encounters with geese when these irritable and protective birds nest near humans.

Male mallards, called drakes, have iridescent green heads and flat yellow bills. They’re mostly gray in plumage. Females have mostly brown bodies with an orange and gray bill and a commonly visible blue wing patch with white borders.

The Canada goose is a well-known bird with its black neck and signature white chinstrap, as well as that classic honking noise that can be recognized anywhere.

While ducks and geese are mostly thought of as migratory birds, these two species in particular can remain pretty far north as long as they have enough food, which stems from having available open water.

More and more, Canada geese and mallards are remaining year-round as far as the Canadian border in some locations or further along the coasts.

If they’re hanging around all winter, it likely means they have enough food, so resist the urge to feed them, even if you see others doing it. Feeding waterfowl, while it may seem fun, has a couple of key downsides, especially when done with artificial human foods like old bread.

The National Audubon Society has more here.

American Crow

American Crow
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

The American crow is a truly under-appreciated bird. Noisy birds associated with eating dead animals or trash or harassing other birds, crows are amazingly intelligent animals.

Members of the crow family are capable of using tools, thinking ahead to plan for future events and even holding funerals for dead crows. Learn more about crow funerals from Bay Nature by clicking here.

Crows have long been found in or near forests, but city parks, cemeteries, backyards, and landfills can all attract these adaptable birds.

So time you see a crow digging through garbage, don’t think of it as a trash-scavenging pest, think about that crow as an ultra-intelligent survivalist.

The American crow looks very similar to – though significantly smaller than – the common raven, whose range extends across North America, but mostly sticks to northern and western North America.

Southern Texas is also home to Tamaulipas crow, parts of the eastern United States host the year-round residency of the fish crow and the Chihuahuan raven is a residence of the American Southwest.

Rock Pigeon

Rock Pigeon
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

The rock pigeon is so familiar on city streets that you may not even think of these clunky, hobbling birds as wildlife, and in many cases that’s probably accurate. You don’t typically have to look far to find them in most major cities. A five-minute walk downtown is all but certain to turn up a pigeon or two.

There isn’t a solid population estimate for pigeons in each city, but New York’s alone is said to be over a million, according to the Museum of the City of New York. But they feel so abundant that some have said there’s a pigeon in New York for every human resident – that would put the number over 8 million if it were true.

According to All About Birds, pigeons have been domesticated for more than 5,000 years, with evidence from Egyptian hieroglyphics suggesting their long-standing domestication. They’ve been present on the North American continent since the 1600s.

The greenish-purplish color on the mostly gray bird’s neck gives it some beauty in the right lighting, and there are some interesting features of pigeons, though mostly from a domestication perspective.

While there are an estimated 260 million to 400 million pigeons out there, there’s some doubt over whether truly wild populations have been infiltrated by feral or domestic birds, according to the Nature Conservancy.

Perhaps pigeons in the United States deserve a life of leisure. After all, pigeons have a history of military service. During World War I and World War II, for example, pigeons were used to transport messages behind enemy lines. The Library of Congress has a list of stories available here.

Gulls

Gulls
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

Gulls provide urban birders with an opportunity to check some extra birds off their life list without ever leaving the city, and many people don’t take the opportunity to identify the actual species. After all, ‘it’s just a seagull,’ some might think.

The most common species of gull will vary by location, with the herring gull common on northern Atlantic shores throughout the year, the ring-billed gull in the northern interior, or the western gull along Pacific shores, to name a few.

And often, you don’t even have to leave the parking lot of a local mall to get your eyes on gulls.

Some gull species are often known to steal food from other species, and not just humans when they leave a picnic unattended. In the wild, gulls are adaptable birds that can fly long distances, survive drinking salt water, and raise young in pairs.

As we said with the crow earlier, there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to these urban scavengers.

In Conclusion

This is just a sampling of some of the different urban birds you can find in North American cities and can vary significantly as you move from metro to metro. For example, coastal cities will have a multitude of wildlife available to urban birders, as will cities near forests, in the mountains, or near the Great Lakes.

This all goes to show you that birding is for everyone, whether you live on 100 private acres or in a one-bedroom apartment in a huge city.

And just for kicks, here are a few more common urban birds you might be familiar with.

Other Urban Birds

European starling

European Starling
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

Another non-native bird, the starling has colonized nearly the entire North American continent since its introduction, with more than 200 million from Alaska down to Mexico, according to All About Birds.

If you can get past their reputation and non-native status, they’re attractive birds with a mastery of numerous calls, including mimicry of other birds’ calls.

American robin

American Robin
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

Many northern residents’ surefire sign of spring, robins can survive without much in terms of specialized habitat. If there’s an open grass park with a few trees where they can nest and worms in the ground, you can often find some robins.

Turkey vulture

Turkey vulture
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

Seeing a bunch of large birds circling overhead, gliding along effortlessly? You’re probably seeing vultures, and in the United States, that likely means turkey vultures.

They have a strong sense of smell that can lead them to a dead animal or even trash, which makes them common at sites like landfills.

Mourning dove

Mourning Dove
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

Year-round residents across almost the entire United States, mourning doves and their calls and songs are instantly recognizable, though the Eurasian collared dove, which has a thicker collar, can give birders some pause.

House finch

House Finch
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

The house finch, originally a bird of the American Southwest, has made itself common throughout much of the United States, aside from parts of the Great Plains.

Males are attractive red birds that could be confused with other native birds like the purple finch in the north or Cassin’s finch in the west.

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