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For the Birds: Nurturing a Hobby and a Hatred

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For the Birds: Nurturing a Hobby and a Hatred

Matt Milligan

On a warm spring afternoon as the sun was going down and beams of light fired through the trees in the forest before which I sat, I developed a moderate addiction. A type of addiction that people like you and I suffer from throughout our lives that comes without warning and is occasionally irreversible. I’m talking about the black hole that is a random-as-hell hobby.

I for one have suffered at the suffocating grasp of hobbies my entire life: Pogs, model planes/ships, Beanie Babies (yup I said it), baseball/football/basketball/hockey cards… I even battled a (thankfully) temporary Pokemon addiction. I yearn for those days, as currently my only ‘addictions’ come in the form of foods my body no longer understands how to consume (I’m lookin at you old pal, pepperoni pizza), or the occasional TV show that I can’t look away from (House of Cards Season 1 robbed 14 consecutive hours of my life). 

But on that fateful sunny afternoon at my girlfriend’s parent’s house, my fixation was a little more unusual. I sat by myself with a beer in hand staring out into the woods at a deer that couldn’t see me, wondering aimlessly what a deer thinks about as the sun is going down: “ohhhh my god, oh my god, it's getting dark... it's so, so quiet.. too quiet.. WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT??!?!? I can't see anything. I’m going to die tonight aren't I?" I just talked myself through why I could never be a deer - thanks for joining. 

As I was getting up for another beer, something darted in front of my face and sort of shook me out of my weird deerdream. I followed the trajectory of this little bullet and low and behold, a tiny bird landed on a feeder hanging from a tree nearby. I sat back down and admired it – it had this beautiful little voice, a little Mohawk thing going on, and a sort of bravado about him – he seemed completely unfazed by my presence 4 feet away.

I remembered seeing a bird identification book inside, so I walked up and snagged it with another beer to come back down and observe once more. After figuring out the book, I determined what I had seen was a Tufted Titmouse – a small bird with a sneakily big personality. For the next hour or so I studied the visitors: American Goldfinch, House Finch, Nuthatch, even a male Cardinal and his one eyed significant other made a few drop-ins. Needless to say, I was hooked – it felt like collecting baseball cards but for adults… except you don’t get to keep them, and you don’t have to beg your parents to pay for them.

Flash forward a couple weeks and I’m back home, bird feeder hung on the front porch, bird app downloaded to my phone, sitting at my window ‘calling’ in birds with the app’s sounds and having them stare at me like, “honey that’s the ugliest damn Cardinal I’ve ever seen.” 

Cardinals came in, lots of House Finches, some Sparrows, and a Mourning Dove (always thought it was ‘morning’) poked around on the ground - even a Blue Jay came over and made his presence known. The porch phase, however, was short lived. Seed shells were freaking everywhere after a couple days, adding the lovely side effect of squirrels and chipmunks freely roaming my front stoop like they owned it.

The next logical place was my backyard: a bit more secluded with grass underneath, a couple trees and good cover. I was delighted to discover that moving a bird feeder 30 feet doesn’t completely deter an entire species, as the same birds started to make their way around the house (sidenote: how the hell do birds find seeds?! It's not exactly like they've got a distinct smell to them). I noticed a couple things though: on this side of the house, the seed lasted maybe a day (compared to four days on the front) and there were a lot more House Sparrows this time around.  I refilled, observed, and so began a trend.

Here’s where we take a turn and get into the “well gosh darn, I didn’t know that!” territory.  Let me ask you a question: which answer below is responsible for invading the nests of native North American birds only to a. destroy whatever eggs are there, and b. rip the freaking heads off of the parent birds?  That had to be bolded for full effect, sorry.

If you answered A, B, C, or D, I commend you, because before my little hobby took hold that’s exactly what my answer would have been too. The correct answer is E, that little brown sparrow (or as a Bluebird conversation group calls them: HOSP) we see every single day on the sidewalks nibbling at a stale hotdog bun or sitting in bunches on power lines. And this is precisely where my healthy hobby transformed itself into full-fledged warfare – I haven’t felt like I wanted to completely eradicate something with such malice since I first laid eyes on a stink bug

And yet, as I’ve done more and more research on the English House Sparrow, the stink bug is exactly what they are: an invasive species introduced without much foresight that spread like the plague to the point where no one could contain it. According to this book, in 1852 the English House Sparrow was first released to North America in Brooklyn, NY, and spread throughout the continent in a matter of two decades. W.L. Dawson, a wildlife photographer and author around the time, had this to say in his book The Birds of Ohio, published in 1903:

"Without question, the most deplorable event in the history of American ornithology was the introduction of the English Sparrow."

If W.L. had been around long enough, I would have loved to have seen what he would have written after waking up to a stink bug landing on his face.  

I feel like I've been living a lie; what I thought was a harmless little hotdog bun snatcher is actually a ruthless killer str8 outta Compton.  Their main beef is with native Swallows and Bluebirds, as the three of them share similar nest construction. But by beef, I mean comes into a nest, corners the parent and proceeds to peck their eyes out and occasionally completely decapitate them (isn’t that part just a bit overkill?). Any offspring still present get tossed out or killed and the Sparrow then builds a nest there, sometimes right on top of the dead parent, reaffirming my theory that one major difference between the House Sparrow and the stink bug is that the latter might actually have a soul, albeit an incredibly stupid, putrid soul.

A House Sparrow taking over a Bluebird nest.

A House Sparrow taking over a Bluebird nest.

If we need any more proof of this bird’s status as a complete waste of space, look no further than the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which pretty much makes it highly illegal to mess with birds or their habitat. Not covered by this federal law: House Sparrows, i.e. it’s completely legal to treat these things like rodents or bugs and get them the hell off your property. They can be pretty destructive as they tend to build in the crevices of houses, and their aggressiveness makes it hard for other birds to come hang out at a feeder since they spend their entire day sitting there eating the seeds just so other birds can’t.

Part of me just wants to believe this is just a slight detour away from the hobby itself - I was actually starting to enjoy cataloging which birds came through and can even decipher calls from the trees while I'm running in the park. But like humans, they're not all law abiding good Samaritans capable of coexisting. And for that, these little shitheads are about to feel the wrath that is a guy with a random hobby, assuming I don't lose interest like the other 95% of them I take up.