A Guide to Parking Lot Birds of the Southeast
Every part of the world has it’s suite of parking lot staples, those urbanish species that seem to prefer to linger about humanity subsisting in no small amount to the magnanimity, or more likely the laziness, of humankind. With the proliferation of those erstwhile invaders, House Sparrow, European Starling, and Rock Pigeon, there a lot of homogeneity among these species, which is a shame because what parking lot birds generally lack in beauty they more than make up for in charisma. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to brazenly forage among automobiles and pedestrians, and for those interested in birds that’s as interesting as any rufous belly or golden brow, after all. But there’s still some regional biases for those who pay attention. The western half of the continent sees a lot of Brewer’s Blackbirds mixed in. And in parts of the Rockies, Clark’s Nutcracker reigns supreme. And in the free-flying aviary that is Florida you can easily be shocked by what you find, but White Ibis seem to show a surprising affinity to the local fast food joints.
Here in the non-Floridian Southeast we have sparrows and starlings and pigeons. They are, after all, pervasive, but provided you get far enough east in North Carolina the salt air tends to disagree with all but the hardiest individuals of that unholy trilogy. When you reach the end of the road, where the pavement turns to sand and sea, the starlings slip away to be replaced by a parking lot scourge altogether more menacing. Quiscalus major, the Boat-tailed Grackle.
By the time early July rolls around, the titular boat tail is not much more than a dinghy. With breeding mostly in the past, there’s no need for anything that flashy and the ins and outs of grackle goings on have worn that that was once a rudder nearly the length of the bird’s body down to something barely larger than its far more pedestrian inland cogener, and in flight it looks less like the major that species name suggests and more like a bulky Common Grackle. But Boat-tails still have a few field marks to differentiate themselves besides their massive (less so now) tail. They have a massive bill too, suited as it is for french fries, fish guts, and the occasional legitimately gotten Fiddler Crab.
And of course, there’s the females, gray brown and dark-eyed. Hard to mistake for anything (though I did recently receive an eBird report for a Ring-necked Pheasant that photos proved to be a female Boat-tailed Grackle so I guess I shouldn’t be so quick to judge).
When the fishermen are not bringing in anything worth fighting over, the grackles head to the short grass just off the parking lot where they scour the lawn for seeds and bugs and whatnot. They’re not picky, you can’t be when the parking lot is your habitat of choice, but no doubt the odd fresh insect is a well-deserved palate cleanser.
The one patch of fresh water is always valuable real estate near the ocean, so when pickings are particularly slim the birds tended to congregate near the freshwater to bathe and drink. And when you’re in the middle of your post-breeding molt, you need to do that a lot.
You can have your starlings and sparrows, I’ll take the big tailed grackles of the southeast. Though, admittedly, Clark’s Nutcracker would be alright too.