Road trip adds nonnative species to life list

Posted10/14/2013 8:53 AM
  • The Eurasian tree sparrow is easily distinguished from the abundant and closely related house sparrow by its smaller size, black spot on the cheek and a solid reddish-brown crown.

    The Eurasian tree sparrow is easily distinguished from the abundant and closely related house sparrow by its smaller size, black spot on the cheek and a solid reddish-brown crown. Courtesy of Jeff Reiter

If I ever stop feeding the birds, house sparrows will be the reason. Far too many frolic in my backyard. They eat too much. They spoil the birdbath. They hog nesting cavities, making life harder for other birds.

And the house sparrow, like the European starling, is not a native species. That alone is enough to raise the ire of most birders.

So it might surprise you that I put 250 miles on my Corolla last month just to see a nonnative bird. Not a rare vagrant from overseas, but one that lives in Illinois all year around.

Like the house sparrow, the Eurasian tree sparrow was imported here from Europe in the 19th century. The two are close relatives and look similar. The big difference is range. House sparrows were set free in Brooklyn around 1850 and spread like wildfire. They are abundant from coast to coast.

Eurasian tree sparrows, on the other hand, are local and uncommon. In North America, they are found in only three places: eastern Missouri, southeastern Iowa and west-central Illinois. The species first was released in St. Louis's Lafayette Park in 1870.

Until recently, I had no idea that Eurasian tree sparrows existed within 120 miles of Glen Ellyn. Then I noticed an Illinois Young Birders outing scheduled for Sugar Grove Nature Center in Funks Grove Nature Preserve, just south of Bloomington. The trip leader, Ben Murphy, described the area as one of the most reliable places to see Eurasian tree sparrows.

I appreciate reliability, especially when it involves a bird I've never seen. So off I went with my son, Jay, who is not a birder but likes road trips.

Birding in late September, at the height of fall migration, is almost guaranteed to be good. And Sugar Grove proved better than good on a sunny but chilly morning. The 1,100-acre preserve teemed with warblers, vireos, tanagers, grosbeaks and other migrating beauties.

In two hours we piled on 45 species, including the most black-and-white warblers and rose-breasted grosbeaks I'd ever seen in one place. Spotting a Lincoln's sparrow and a blue-winged warbler was especially nice since those two species traditionally elude me.

Turning our backs on the show outside wasn't easy, but I was eager to get a look at the star attraction.

Imagine that, a nonnative sparrow pulling me off the trails on a bright and birdy September morning. The chance for a lifer makes us crazy sometimes.

Ben, Jay and I entered Sugar Grove's Hazel Funk Holmes Bird Viewing Sanctuary inside the interpretive center. Multiple feeding stations just outside the crystal-clear windows were attracting a feathery crowd, including lots of hummingbirds.

A birder could spend many happy hours in a place like this. Clearly it's a wonderful place for kids to learn about birds, too.

Fortunately, the seed eaters outside the viewing room included a few Eurasian tree sparrows -- far outnumbered by house sparrows but easy to tell apart by their black cheek patch and reddish-brown cap. Ben told me the Eurasian population at Sugar Grove is much greater in late fall and winter, when they naturally rely more on feeder food.

Comparing the two immigrant species side by side and watching them interact was interesting. Eurasian tree sparrows and house sparrows don't play nice, at the feeders or elsewhere. They compete for nesting cavities and the chunkier, more aggressive house sparrow usually wins.

Experts believe this is the main reason Eurasians remain so limited in their U.S. distribution. They're simply not wired for world domination like house sparrows and starlings.

Before heading home, Jay and I took the Mother Road, old Route 66, over to Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup. Yes, they really spell it that way, and the sweet treat is one of life's simple pleasures. As I purchased a glass-bottled quart, the shopkeeper asked what brought us to the area. Birding, I said, and one bird in particular. She'd never heard of it.

Northbound on I-55, it occurred to me that the casual visitor might never catch on that Sugar Grove harbors an unusual avian resident. Nothing I noticed at the nature center told the story of the Eurasian tree sparrow, a bird just outside and yet so far away from its original home.

But for curious birders with some gas money, a "reliable" life list opportunity is really quite close.

• Jeff Reiter's column appears monthly in the Daily Herald. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.

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