Common, but Still Precious

There is a general belief that the more commonplace something is, the less we value it. However, this does not necessarily apply in many situations, such as with the birds in our gardens.

Northern Cardinals show up at more bird feeders than any other bird in the East Central United States.
Northern Cardinals show up at more bird feeders than any other bird in the East Central United States.

I was reminded of this when I found a list of the top 25 feeder birds in my region of the USA, compiled by Project FeederWatch. The list applies to winter only. Birds were ranked by the percentage of feeders they visited, the size of the group they travelled with, and their general abundance – meaning how many visited feeders and how often they did so.

At first, I was disappointed to learn that the Northern Cardinal is our area’s most common bird in terms the percentage of feeders they visit. They are the second most common in terms of abundance. For a moment, I felt as if this somehow devalued the pleasure I got from watching these birds.


Northern Cardinals, dashing yet dignified
Northern Cardinals, dashing yet dignified.

Many Cardinals can be seen throughout the day in our garden, but after a moment’s thought I realized that does not make them less special. That brilliant red, those pointy crests, the dignified demeanor, are always deeply satisfying to observe. When they appear in greater numbers it only adds to the excitement.

The single most common bird in terms of abundance in our region is the English or House Sparrow. They visit a slightly smaller percentage of bird feeders than the Cardinals, though. I was surprised to learn that English Sparrows are becoming rare in the UK and some other places. Speaking for myself, I would gladly pack up all our English Sparrows and ship them off to some place where they are in short supply.

English Sparrows, gobbling everything off teh platform feeder.
English Sparrows, gobbling everything off the platform feeder.

English Sparrows are tiresome, but not because they are numerous. The real problem is that they are so dull to look at. If they were red like the Cardinals – or green, purple, or blue – would I like them better? Absolutely. This may be shallow on my part, but I’m the one buying the sunflower seed. When it comes to birds, bright colors count for a lot.

Combine their dullness with their voracious appetites, and English Sparrows are pretty much like a house guest who eats everything in the refrigerator while droning on about all the problems they’ve been having with their feet. Actually, that sounds a lot like my Uncle Donald.

I was gratified to see that at least 21 of the top 25 feeder birds have made appearances in my garden, the exceptions being the Tufted Titmouse and the Carolina Wren. Also, I’m not sure if the American Tree Sparrow or Song Sparrow have been around, as I can’t tell them from the generic LBJ (little brown jobbie).

Varied Thrush
A Varied Thrush in our garden last winter. Sadly he did not return this year.

Plus, we’ve had a few birds not on the top 25 list, such as the Northern Flicker and last year’s celebrity, the Varied Thrush. Truly rare birds inspire a special excitement, but something does not need to be rare to give pleasure.

American Robin
American Robin

Before concluding, I have to make an aside regarding the American Robin. Also one of the top 25, but the list revealed that taxonomists have burdened this cheerful bird with the awful scientific name of: Turdus migratorius. Talk about cruelty to animals! Really, couldn’t they have come up with something better than that?

What about you – does a bird have to be rare to make you happy?

59 Comments on “Common, but Still Precious”

  1. You are definately correct is saying that we all like rarity and colour! Living in a different country to the one I grew up in means that I find all of the wildlife here different and interesting, for instance I love the lizards, but here no-one really notices them because they are everywhere. Magpies are beautiful birds but no-one loves them because they eat the young of other birds and there are so many of them.

  2. I agree, a terrible name! I certainly would be happy to see a Cardinal or Humming Bird in summer, but no chance of that here! I have to admit that rarer birds do get me more excited, but I love the crows and woodpeckers just as much and they are profuse! I also get excited when I spot the first swallows or other birds retuning from their winter holidays.

  3. I always like your bird post and luckily, I don’t share the “general belief” as I find and see beauty in a lot of things even if they are small and often unnoticed. Our European Jay is very colourful and pretty but I don’t like to see too much of them because they eat bird eggs in spring.

  4. You are lucky to have such beautiful birds. The cardinals are gorgeous. I think you are a bit hard on the house sparrow though. They used to be ubiquitous here, chattering, squabbling and carrying on like your Uncle Donald. We just took them for granted. And now we hardly have any, for some reason they have become rare and you can’t imagine how much we miss them.

  5. Another thought provoking post Jason. I agree with Chloris and have just googled why they are in America and it seems settlers naively introduced them to deal with insects on grain crops. But they ate the grain too, lessons learnt to late. Apparently in the 19th century there were bounty hunters in the UK to catch sparrows too. They are a red status bird here now – in decline. I really love to see any bird here but with the increased aggressive use of chemicals on our agricultural farm lands there is now very little wildlife in those vast areas. Hence I am delighted by whoever comes to share my garden. Your Cardinals are so striking, we do not have such a showy small bird here, except for Parakeets introduced by the Victorians as caged birds and have now naturalised in most parts of London.

    • We also have parakeets! Monk parakeets, to be exact. Descendants of escaped pets, they have become habituated to our winters and make quite an odd sight. Did you know we have starlings here because someone wanted to have a garden with all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare? Starlings are now quite common and sometimes a nuisance. Don’t you have woodpeckers in Europe and nightingales?

      • Yes we do, there is a pair of green woodpeckers who regularly visit here and Goldfinches are another colourful visitor to my garden in the winter. A couple of weeks ago we went to watch a Starling murmuration where 2000 birds flew together and a couple of sparrow hawks sent them into fantastic moving shapes. It was thrilling to watch. A pair regularly nest in the eves of our house, poop aside, we love them!

  6. My grandmother was a birdwatcher and she passed that passion on to me. I’ve always wanted to learn how to identify a bird from its call, and I do know a few, but I’m hopeless with the rest. I bought a CD tutorial, but when I listen to it I’m even more confused than before. LOL

  7. Birds don’t have to be rare to make me happy. I dearly love the Wren family. They are small and so lively. We have Carolina Wrens year round and during the nesting season we have House Wrens that take up nesting in any wren box put out in the garden. All so entertaining. Then during Winter we make special trips into the wooded areas of parks to seek out Winter Wrens. The Cardinal is most welcome in the garden too. As with all the other birds that come around. I do draw the line at Starling. They are so aggressive. Another introduced bird that isn’t doing well in their native countries. I wish we could gather up a few million of them and send them back.

  8. Nope! I just love watching birds — even sparrows and crows — the way they are constantly moving their heads and looking up and down, and chirping, cawing, taking foods, flying away — they are truly marvelous creatures of nature. And, I LOVE CARDINALS — I AM NEVER GOING TO BE TIRED OF THIS BIRD :-):-):-)……

  9. Although Toronto is not far away we rarely see Cardinals in our yard but I so wish we did. They’re so pretty! We don’t feed but plan to get into doing so, however I watch closely during migratory periods. Last year I saw some interesting birds in our trees, the neatest being a Brown Creeper. They are described as being mistaken for mice and sure enough when I spotted him I first thought I was looking at a mouse.

  10. It’s wonderful to see a rare bird, but I’m so new to bird watching that they’re all fascinating to me…and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of even the “common” ones. They all have such interesting behaviours. I’d sure love to see those cardinals, though – it’s natural, I think, for us to be attracted to the birds with showier plumage.

    Poor American robins – that name is simply unfortunate!

  11. The house sparrow is not on my list of favorite birds either as they crowd out native birds. However, we do not have them around the house as, together with starlings, they do not live far from cities and towns. You see them in the village half an hour drive away, but the woods where we live are too “wild” for them.
    I like cardinals very much but it is puzzling how they have managed to get so numerous. They used to nest in a Dutchman’s pipe vine in our old garden and their nest was so poorly built that more than once I have seen chicks fall off because the nest was breaking apart! I would “reinforce” it and pop the chick back in. The first time I did it, I was afraid the parents might abandon the nest because of my interference. However they never seemed to notice!

  12. Lol, what an awful name! You are lucky with your beautifully coloured birds, I think they are stunning. The majority of our birds are dullish colour wise, but the little sparrows used to be everywhere, chirping away, especially in London. There’s not many left now and I only see the odd one in the garden. A

  13. Last week when I was out shoveling snow (my primary fitness regime for this winter), I heard a cardinal nearby singing its spring territorial song. I stopped, smiled, and looked up into the treetops to see if I could see the flash of red. No matter how often I hear them, the cardinal’s song always makes me happy.

  14. I agree! Most winters we have lots of cardinals here, but I think we’ve actually been too cold this year because I haven’t seen as many. Love ’em though, and they’re here year-round. My favorite songbird is the black-capped chickadee. They’re here year-round, too, and one of the very few birds that I see (and hear) on the coldest (and hottest) of days. I absolutely love their summer song. Great bird shots!

  15. English house sparrows do have a reputation! Ours flock to the garden in mobs and are a delight to watch as they’re so playful. They’ll splash around in the birdbath, push each other off the feeding perches, chitter chatter and generally just be very amusing. They’re much more daring and bold that most other birds.

  16. I have to wonder on the Great Bird Count for accuracy. I too was emailed the list and the Cardinal is number one. I think results get skewed because people want to report them and do so repeatedly. This year, the Starling was a leader here even though I had 7 Cardinals during the count. The starlings did reduce the number of House Sparrows, but I too do not mind having them. I am with others in appreciation of all things rare or common. I have had no issues with the Sparrows killing other birds or destroying nests. The Starlings either, but both species empty the feeders which is really costly. Judy got some nice photos.

  17. As much as I miss seeing the variety of birds I had last year compared to this one – where did “my” White-breasted Nuthatches to? – I am happy to see Northern Cardinals and even a good-looking House Finch just about anytime, even though the latter are even more common than the House Sparrows in my yard. At some point if I take the time to just pay attention and watch, any bird can become interesting. House Sparrows, for example, will try almost anything.

  18. At this time of year, any bird is welcome to me. Their calls are becoming more frequent, as we move towards spring (will it ever come?) here in upstate New York. It’s interesting you’ve mentioned Monk Parakeets in the comments. Where my best childhood friend lives in Brooklyn I’ve seen and heard them. They nest in the power lines.

  19. I’ve never done the great bird count but I need to because I have a lot in my yard. I love the gold finches and hummingbirds, even though I only see the hummers in the summer. I’ve never seen a thrush. I think I have mostly common birds. They all excite me, especially the bluebirds. Anytime a bird comes to my garden, I’m honored. It may seem silly, but so be it. :o)

  20. I love seeing birds in my garden, any kind really. I’m just starting to be able to tell them apart (so many small brown birds here!). I wish we got cardinals here–they are so beautiful. I spotted a western tanager last spring, which is one of the few birds we have here that even gets close to the fabulous coloring of cardinals.

  21. NOT a very becoming name for such a handsome bird! Cardinals have such fat bellies and I just love them! Another favorite of mine is the Jenny Wren and is often seen sharing suet with the Pileate Woodpecker.

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