Bird Habitat, Aisles 1 Through 8

The store -- er, house sparrow. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 8, 2007

Like any discerning shopper, the common house sparrow knows where to go for a good deal in the suburbs. At Lowe's, Wal-Mart, Home Depot and other keepers of vast birdseed stockpiles, the only thing standing between worry-free opulence and the travails of outdoor living is an automatic door.

Not that it's much of an obstacle. Thanks to the leafy, well-watered garden center -- now a standard appendage of the large retail layout -- clever birds are finding a niche in the big-box ecosystem, much to the chagrin of store managers. Check the ceiling of any large store with a high roof and a birdseed aisle, and there's likely to be more than a few of the feathery critters frolicking in the rafters.

"Most birds want to hang out, sleep, hop around and look for food," said Rob Fergus, a senior scientist with the National Audubon Society. "If they spend enough time in a big-box store, they'll learn it's a safe place to be."

The birds' adaptation to the retail lifestyle is as much a result of suburban evolution as any avian one. While bird-control technicians are summoned to all types of buildings these days, the territorial expansion of the big-box store and its alluring combination of birdseed, human food, plants and warehouse roosting space make for a blockbuster attraction. It's Club Med for the winged set.

"I can't say there's many of those stores that don't have birds in them," said George Rambo, a veteran bird catcher who owns two Critter Control franchises in the Washington area. "They're wide open, with tall shelves, and that type of construction is really attractive."

Bird-watching in Washington area stores is mostly a matter of listening for their merry chirping -- just audible over the piped-in smooth jazz -- and heading straight for the outdoor and garden section. At a Home Depot in Manassas last week, one sparrow gang was twittering around above the lawn mowers; in a nearby Wal-Mart, a solitary bird perched unruffled over big sacks of millet, not far from the skateboards and the beach towels, as if waiting patiently for all the customers to go home.

"They're amazing," said one Home Depot employee who wasn't authorized to speak to reporters about birds or any other subject. "I like watching them fly around."

Stores typically draw two types of bird patrons, according to ornithologists and pest-management experts. There is the accidental visitor, a migrating finch, for instance, that, lured by bright lights and wing-tired from weeks of exertion, strays into a Kmart and can't figure out how to get back on track to Florida.

Then there's the more common variety, the habituated retail client -- usually a house sparrow. To these squat, Twinkie-size birds, big-box stores are the horse barns of the 21st century: warm, predator-free and packed with tasty morsels. Once liberated from the menace of house cats and Cooper's hawks, the boisterous little birds can live indefinitely in the store environment.

"It's a smorgasbord for what their needs are," said Ron Harrison, a scientist and director of training for Orkin Inc.

And it's no fluke that house sparrows have taken a liking to our favorite retail outlets. The species hitched its fortunes to human settlements several thousand years ago in Eurasia when the first farmers began storing seed, according to Audubon's Fergus. The birds were introduced in New York in the 1850s to combat a caterpillar infestation.

Incidentally, they didn't care much for the grubs but quickly took a liking to the seed-rich horse droppings scattered on the streets of Brooklyn. The sparrows' range expanded with the nation, following the railroad tracks and fanning out to farms across the continent, impelled by a kind of a seed-seeking Manifest Destiny.

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