Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Red-billed quelea is most populous bird species on earth

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Q: After reading the "World of Wonder" insert in The Berkshire Eagle about the billions of passenger pigeons that once darkened our skies, I had to wonder which avian species is the most numerous today. I would guess either the common English Sparrow (aka House Sparrow) or the starling, neither of which are native to America and are considered intrusive displacing many of our native birds. Would you care to comment with the actual answer?

— Michael, Great Barrington

A: As often happens, "everything in moderation" is the key to not only living well, but being accepted by others. And for one reason or another the most numerous species we have, whether beetle or bird are not universally accepted because they have become a major problem or at the least a nuisance.

Thinking in parochial terms is often less troubling than thinking globally. As for the most numerous wild species on earth, out numbering the starling or the house sparrow, is a species most of us have never heard of, a sparrow-sized bird found in Africa. This populous species is one that few of us know much about, the red-billed quelea (Quelea quelea), or red-billed weaver. Sometimes it is characterized as a locust with feathers. That said, it is easy to believe it is destructive, and in fact with an estimated breeding population of 1.5 billion on the African continent, it is also the most destructive species. There are three subspecies, (1) is found from "Senegal to Chad; (2) Sudan to Somalia and Tanzania;(3) Gabon to Mozambique and South Africa. It is a good source of protein and hunting it for food is encouraged. This however has been insignificant limiting their numbers. In addition, this species is so numerous, according to the Natural Resources Institute, a UK-based development group, some 170 control operations are executed in South Africa each year, killing 50 million birds on average.

One American species I rarely think of in large numbers is our native red-wing blackbird, whose total breeding population is about 130 million, down from 190 million in the 1970s. I more often point a finger at the European starling first brought to North America by Shakespeare enthusiasts in the 19th century. Today, the starling is a disreputable interloper stealing nest sites from native birds, and is ranked among the top in the list of most numerous birds in North America, with more than 200 million.

The house sparrow is also listed among the most abundant and wide-spread songbird in the world, with an estimate at more than 150 million birds in lower 48 states. They were brought to the United States, and first released in New York in 1851, and again in 1852 to control caterpillars, and I understand, to relieve home sickness of the early settlers. I personally despise them, though cute little birds, that is where it ends. They out-compete native species (bluebirds, tree swallows) by evicting other nesting birds, destroying eggs, killing hatchlings and sometimes killing incubating females.

The rock pigeon, if nothing else is widespread, so widespread, especially in cities, towns where they share streets and parks with people that they are a nuisance. Because of that, especially where they become intolerable they have been given names like sky rats, rats with wings, or gutter birds. In Montreal, Canada, they are even called flying ashtrays. When being correct when I was growing up, most people called it pigeon, then mysteriously people began calling the bird "rock dove," now it officially goes by the name "Rock Pigeon." The name rock dove is reserved for rarer wild dove found mostly in Europe.

Rock pigeons may be not the most numerous species worldwide, though they do have a wide range. If you have access to the internet, go to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Columba_livia_distribution_map.png for a recent map of its world-wide range. Pay special attention to the light red or pink.                                   

PASSENGER PIGEONS

Nothing today comes close to the numbers of passenger pigeons, that in the 1800s, with between 3 and 5 billion birds, were the most abundant bird (maybe ever). There were not enough tree branches for a perching flock at night to sleep. And it was claimed that flocks, three to four miles wide and up to 300 miles long, could be seen passing over southern USA on their migration flights. Their passage would darken the sky for hours, and sometimes days. Samuel de Champlain in 1605 reported "countless numbers." By the early 1900s no wild passenger pigeons could be found.

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