The celebration of Columbus Day in the United States has become somewhat contentious over the years as people have taken a more nuanced look at the “discovery” of the New World. On this Columbus Day, my attention turns to other invaders of a more avian kind. Every country has them, the nonnative aggressors that some refer callously to as trash birds.
“Trash bird” is controversial birding lingo for any species that is so ubiquitous in a location that it surpasses unremarkable and becomes truly irritating. Trash birds hog the feeders, crowd the trees, and consistently outcompete other species for habitat and resources. Their belligerent success spells failure for many other kinds of potentially more interesting birds. Although most birders are too polite to use this derogatory term in mixed company, few, if any, can claim to love all birds equally. If some species had to be sacrificed for the greater good, these are the ones that would be tossed on the trash heap.
The kingdom of unloved avians is ruled by the trash triumvirate: House Sparrow, European Starling, and Rock Pigeon. Invasives all, these three species probably account for 99% of all urban bird sightings. Each one is admirable for any number of reasons, not the least of which is a shared unholy adaptability. The pigeon is a beautiful flyer, the starling has exquisite, prismatic plumage, and the sparrow seems unfazed by even the most extreme temperatures. But imagine how diverse the bird populations would be in your city if these birds flew the coop.
Sometimes this appellation is applied to native species that surpass all boundaries of decent distribution due to their ferocious fecundity. For example, the American Robin may or may not be a trash bird, depending on the time of year. In February, people pine for a glimpse of this herald of spring, but by April, the robin has already worn out its welcome. One should note that Turdus thrushes consistently assert trash status all around the world, typically appearing as the species most birders have to wade through to get to the “good birds!”
Among American waterfowl, the Canada Goose is the least loved, especially by golfers. Although Mute Swan are just as threatening to other birds in their environment, they are just too beautiful to be reviled. As far as ducks go, even common species like Mallard enjoy lots of support.
Large black birds like crows and grackles may also be referred to as trash birds. In some parts of the U.S., flocks of grackles can grow so large and indifferent to humans that they dominate public parks. Gulls can be even worse!
Obviously, the title of trash bird is derogatory and often elides the point that individual avians are not guilty of the sins of their progenitors. In addition, the distinction is contextual: birds common in one part of the world are rare or even unseen in other places. If you’ve ever chased a Common Myna or Eurasian Collared-Dove in the United States, you’ve gone out of your way for a true trash bird by international standards!
The lesson here is not to grow to contemptuous of any birds in your area, even the ones you see every single day. As they say, one birder’s trash is another one’s treasure.
Do you ever use the term “trash bird” to describe a species you’re tired of seeing?
(I first wrote about American Trash Birds in April 2004, but my feelings on the topic have somewhat matured.)