At the time of writing, there are 4.4 billion humans living in cities, 56% of the global population – this number is expected to increase to one in seven of us in an urban environment by 2050. Among all of the challenges that this brings, few stop to think about the impact our expansion has on the wildlife that used to live right where that new housing estate is. To survive in this ever-creeping urban habitat, birds are often forced to either accept or reject the new situation.
Our cumulative sprawl leads to such environmental fragmentation that evidence has shown species undergo evolutionary changes once thought to take millennia. Islets of suitable bird habitat still exist among the highways and buildings, and it is here and within our jungle of steel, brick and concrete that several species have also come to call home. Let’s take a look at five examples of birds many of us know all too well from our proximity to their fast and brief lives.
The wild ancestors of our feral many-shaded pigeons are actually called rock doves, a species that was readily domesticated originally to provide us with food, and as their navigational instincts were revealed to us, later used as messengers in times of war. Pigeons and their cousins we now refer to as doves make up around 300 species of the same family, the Columbidae, all long associated with urban landscapes. Their cunning adaptability proved to be their saving grace as they learned to travel through our cities with remarkable precision.
Pigeons possess a unique homing instinct that allows them to find their way back to their roosts even in complex urban mazes, which gave us a new era of mail delivery – letter, mail or messenger pigeons still exist in some parts of the world, but nowadays those birds who display this skill are used in competitions and referred to as racing pigeons. But for centuries, we exploited their urge to find their home to send even highly sensitive, top-secret messages across enemy lines.
Their reputation as “rats with wings” is a relatively new addition to our view of them, popularized by the governor of New York in 1966 when a highly successful propaganda campaign against them proved to be more useful than paying for cleaning up the mess they leave on our buildings and pavements. Wild rock doves could originally be found all over our coastal cliffs and inland edifices such as mountains; but when we came along, the easy access to our discarded food and our propensity to pack us all in tightly and upwards provided the perfect environment for cohabitation.
See the gull?
Opportunistic oceanic predators, or seagulls, as many of us call them, are in fact around fifty different species worldwide. Collectively known as gulls, three species in particular have become a familiar sight in coastal towns and cities worldwide. Herring, great and lesser black-backed gulls have effortlessly transitioned from their natural coastal habitats to urban environments. Exploiting various food sources, scavenging from garbage bins, restaurants, and parks, their ability to adapt to our presence and their cunning resourcefulness has contributed to their success in almost all of our urban areas.
Although usually found along the coast, many gulls live inland. As a gregarious species like pigeons, their willingness to socialize with each other has led to our labeling them a pest; many businesses and residents in the urban sprawl go to great lengths and cost to reduce their numbers by installing all manner of anti-gull infrastructure such as spikes, nets, and decoy predators; most with no effect whatsoever.
These birds know when their luck is in and won’t give up on the prospect of easy food, which they naturally associate with us, and the lack of predators in the location helps their self-assured existence come to fruition. Despite being a common sight, some gulls are on the IUCN Red List as evidence is showing that overall, species like kittiwakes and black-headed gulls are on the decline.
Falcons, renowned for their speed and aerial agility, have found a niche in our urban environment. Peregrine falcons in particular have adapted well to city life, utilizing tall skyscrapers, churches and cathedrals and bridges as surrogates for their natural cliff habitats. With so many high-rise structures simulating cliffs, these birds use height to their advantage in their hunting technique, swooping down on their prey, often pigeons or smaller birds, in an impressive display of precision and skill.
Their presence is often celebrated by city-dwellers, seen as a — while not altogether overly effective — deterrent to other avian urbanites, and the speed and beauty of these birds evokes awe in many onlookers who are fortunate enough to witness this natural predator thriving amidst the concrete and steel of our cityscapes.
What were they called before?
House sparrows, house martins, barn swallows and barn owls are notable species whose names belie their existence; did they have other names before there were houses and barns? Quite probably, yes. The preferred habitat of these species is in the open country such as pasture, meadows and farmland, and preferably near water. Martins and sparrows nest in city centers if the air is clean enough, adapting around our architecture with ease, with martins constructing their cup-shaped nests on the exterior walls of buildings, utilizing the eaves as a substitute for the cliffs they traditionally nested on, and house sparrows are cavity nesters, the gaps between our building blocks providing the perfect habitat for a new family.
Similarly, as the natural landscape transformed due to urban sprawl and intensive agriculture, barn owls shifted their roosting sites from natural hollow trees to barns and abandoned buildings, seamlessly integrating into the built environment. This move is thought to have originated around 5,500 years ago when early civilizations built covered structures to keep haystacks dry. Barn owl bones have been discovered in the Iron Age village of Glastonbury and at a Roman site at Cranborne Chase in Dorset, in the United Kingdom.
For hundreds of years Barn owls living in farm buildings were regarded by farmers as a good omen, their ghostly white presence a silent savior as they ate the mice and rats that would mercilessly devour the wheat and crops stored there. Some old farmhouses have had the same Barn owl lineage nesting in for many generations.
The transition from cliffs and fields to towns and cities has undoubtedly presented urban birds with challenges, but also opportunities. While they lose their original habitats, these adaptable species gain access to new food sources, nesting opportunities, and protection from natural predators. The artificial lighting and warmer microclimate that our cities and towns provide 24/7 help extend their foraging and breeding habits immeasurably, increasing their chances for survival. While at times it may seem like we are in competition for space and peace, our attitude towards their presence should be a thankful one, relishing the opportunity to see these wild animals at ease, proving that nature can coexist with human development, even in the most unexpected places.