City birds, big bugs and a new birdwatcher

A Starling disassembles a cicada, on a sidewalk in Alexandria, Virginia.

It’s a big year for bugs.

Cicadas crawl about forests all over the world, and most have annual life cycles. But periodical cicadas, which don’t exist anywhere else on Earth but the eastern United States, spend far more time underground before emerging in broods to mate either every 13 years or every 17 years. A different cicada brood emerges most years, but these groups vary greatly in size and location. This year will be special: The so-called Brood X is among the largest and densest. The insects will appear by the billions in three distinct hotspots that cross parts of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, and Tennessee. 

House Sparrows were munching cicadas too.

Seems like a big bug for a small bird, but cicadas are slow and defenseless. Though perhaps their defenses are in their periodically large numbers.

Birds usually help keep bug populations in check, and the cicada influx will be a bonanza for a number of medium- or larger-sized birds that are big enough to dine on the two-inch insects. But because millions of cicadas emerge on a single acre of forest during big brood years, even the keenest birds hardly put a dent in the population.

If you live in the mid-Atlantic region, you can: Help researchers learn which birds eat periodical cicadas.

I am visiting my eldest daughter Anna who moved to the DC area with her husband a year ago during the stress, masking and lockdown restrictions of Covid. Regarding meeting new people and enjoying the culture and variety of city life, she said, “I might as well be living on the moon.”

Earlier this spring, Anna discovered a woodland area along a stream a few blocks from her apartment. It connects to a small park with a paved path looping under trees and through the grassy flood plain. She goes there many evenings after a long day of working from home and before doing homework for her online classes. She has started to learn the birds.

A Great Blue Heron is a regular visitor to the stream.

Yesterday in the early evening, Anna logged her first eBird checklist there. A new birdwatcher has fledged!

These Mallards made the list, as did one Mourning Dove, two Blue Jays pestering three Crows (Fish or American, we weren’t sure), a couple of Carolina Chickadees in a willow tree, four European Starlings strutting around on the park lawns, two madly-singing Gray Catbirds, three Northern Cardinals, and a couple of House Sparrows.

She also learned that a pair of binoculars plus intent staring up into the tree canopy or down into a meadow can be a conversation starter with other nature lovers, dog walkers and curious passersby. Welcome back to Earth from the Moon, dear daughter.

Sparrow, House

house sparrow

“Mom, there’s some kind of bird… like a sparrow… it’s fighting with the bluebirds. Check it out.”

I joined my daughter at the kitchen window.

“What? I think that’s a house sparrow! I’ve never seen one here before. That’s it. It’s all over. We’re the suburbs now.”

“That’s dramatic. It’s just a bird. And there’s only one of them.”

house sparrow

“One bird, but maybe the first bird. The explorer. They are coming to settle new territory. They are invasive and aggressive and compete with native birds like bluebirds for food and nest boxes. We don’t like them.”

“Well, it’s still pretty cute.”

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: House Sparrow

You can find House Sparrows most places where there are houses (or other buildings), and few places where there aren’t. Along with two other introduced species, the European Starling and the Rock Pigeon, these are some of our most common birds. Their constant presence outside our doors makes them easy to overlook, and their tendency to displace native birds from nest boxes causes some people to resent them. But House Sparrows, with their capacity to live so intimately with us, are just beneficiaries of our own success.