There isn’t much bird life on the camp here, unlike many places in Iraq. Despite occasional sightings of interesting things, there are really only three species of birds here: Laughing Doves, pigeons, and the ubiquitous House Sparrow. Having nothing else to watch, I watched the noisy little sparrows, since unlike any other form of animal life, they have flourished here, even with little to eat and less water. I never paid much attention to them at home; they are so common and unexciting compared to other birds in the U.S. that they simply blend into the cacophonous background of city life. But watching them here – with a laser-like focus borne of sheer boredom – has taught me a few things. These things are summarized below for your reading pleasure.
- Like most birds, they forage early in the morning and late in the afternoon, especially during the brutally-hot summer. They especially like to perch on the bathroom trailers and fences near the dumpsters, behind the DFAC, and swoop down to the dumpsters, where discarded food ends up on the ground.
- Much like rats, the sparrows will eat almost anything they can carry off or tear apart with their beaks. As far as I can tell, they mainly subsist on old grease, orange peels, peanuts, and french fries. (The latter food item is limited to the populations that hang around the food courts. The sparrows at the LSA seemed particularly bonkers for McDonald’s fries – they seem to have much the same preference as humans!) The exception to this is beef jerky – though I suppose because they simply can’t eat it. (I have a full set of teeth, and it’s a difficult task for me.) I’m pretty sure a discarded piece of jerky sat next to our building for several weeks, untouched, until I guess someone threw it in the trash.
- Unlike their North American brethren, males here never lose the black color to their bills. They seem to maintain breeding plumage all year long. (Back home,the males’ bills take on a beige or “horn” color during the winter, changing to black again in the spring.)
- The breeding season here starts at the beginning of February and is still ongoing. There might be two seasons – one in late winter and one in the fall, when temperatures are low enough to avoid roasting eggs in the nest, but warm enough not to freeze the chicks when they hatch.
- Males entice females with a little mating dance, where they droop their wings, raise their heads, and hop around, chirping frantically. The females then rush the male, chasing him off, and he repeats the dance, and the female attacks, until apparently she gets tired and invites the male to mount. It’s a funny little show of hard-to-get that seems oddly appropriate for the urban environment in which they live.
- Males spend most of the day on a high perch, chirping to get attention and broadcast their territory. On our living buildings, they’ll space themselves evenly, one at each corner and one in the middle, and chirp away.
- Before dawn, the males will chirp from lower perches, like chain-link fences and the supports for our air conditioners. I suppose it’s because they can’t be seen, so don’t need to be high up. Also, it makes it easier to wake up stupid humans who unwittingly leave windows open, since those windows are right under the A/C units.
- Despite their inability to sing, the sparrows do have different voices, and some males even string different chirps together in a sort of performance (akin to a toddler banging on a piano). One even managed a bit of a trill between chirps, which gives me hope that in 100,000 years or so they’ll evolve a song or two. Females just make a loud chittering call when agitated or when chasing others around.