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General News    H4'ed 8/27/18

Look How Urban Birds Have Adapted to Man

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It is not a surprise that urban birds have lost their fear of man and changed their behavior from living in a built environment. What is a surprise is how quickly it has occurred.

Urban Birds Are Evolving
Urban Birds Are Evolving
(Image by Martha Rosenberg)
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Twenty years ago, sea gulls abounded on Chicago's Lake Michigan shore as they do now. But only recently do they approach and actually "beg" for food from people. Gulls will now come within a foot of humans when food is offered----though their ancestors would have stayed hundreds of feet away. Moreover, they have become cagey. Gulls at the beach will now wait for humans to take a dip in the water and brazenly strut across their beach towels and devour any food found there. I know----it happened to me.

The House Sparrow---- Passer domesticus----has succeeded in establishing and growing urban populations because "it associates with humans," says Audubon. "Tough, adaptable, aggressive, it survives on city sidewalks where few birds can make a living; in rural areas, it may evict native birds from their nests."

In Chicago, the Passer domesticus might be considered the Passer Starbuckus. Like the humans it associates with, it loves its croissants and Starbucks outdoor seating. While a few years ago, Passer might have been on the periphery of outdoor cafes, it now perches on tables----while people are sitting there----begs and eats crumb offerings from compliant human hands.

And speaking of begging, you can often see a young house sparrow that looks fully grown aggressively flying after its mother only to flutter its wings helplessly and open its mouth when she notices it. The message: "I am a so weak and helpless I can't feed myself. Feed me." She does. No matter that the baby is strong enough to fly after its mother to deliver this message!

And pigeons? Rock doves of course are plentiful in Chicago and other urban environments and have adapted to being fed by man for years. Many people dislike pigeons but they should have sympathy for them. During the cold weather, as many as 25 percent of pigeons in some areas of Chicago have missing toes or even feet from sticking to freezing metal when they perch and losing their appendages. Pigeons also valiantly sit on their eggs and feed their young during subzero weather because they breed year 'round

Like sparrows and sea gulls, Chicago pigeons have learned new tricks for begging----even the crippled and amputee ones. While pigeons have always known the sound and sight of potato chips, cookies or granola bars unwrapped by train riders and begged, in the last few years the smarter ones have begun to play "helicopter." They hover in place at exactly the height of your hand, if it has a snack in it, as if to say--"notice anything"? "Hey--over here!"

Certainly the bird four inches from your hand--or less--is more likely to get a morsel from your granola bar than his brethren on the ground. So losing the fear of man is clearly evolutionary behavior for these urban birds.

(Article changed on August 28, 2018 at 01:22)

(Article changed on August 28, 2018 at 04:46)

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Martha Rosenberg is an award-winning investigative public health reporter who covers the food, drug and gun industries. Her first book, Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health, is distributed by Random (more...)

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