Nature Nut: Sparring with sparrows? One-time invaders are built to last

September 30, 2018

Last Saturday morning began as a brisk day after an overnight low below 40. I had missed my usual sleepover at the river to watch motivated duck hunters launch their boats in the dark of the night. I assume they did so to be at their selected spots at dawn, before which a barrage of shooting had undoubtedly already started.

Instead, I was sitting on my porch checking out visitors to my bird feeder, which has not produced much variety since moving in more than four months ago. But the morning started out with a visit from a resident white-breasted nuthatch, followed by a male goldfinch still showing some of its summer colors.

But then came my most frequent visitors of the past month, the non-native house sparrows. They seemed to show up in groups of five to 10 birds, often with four or five of them at the feeder at the same time. I was able to get some photos of the sparrows feeding, which oddly enough showed yellowish breasts on the birds, something my birding expert friends were also befuddled by.

And, just as I began writing about the sparrows, a sparrow-like bird with a red head showed up at the feeder. I didn’t have great light on it, but my first reaction to the raspberry shade of the head made me wonder if it might be a purple finch, instead of what I originally assumed as a house finch.

However, finally getting a better shot, with the sun illuminating the bird’s head, I decided it was a house finch, not an early migrating purple finch.

House sparrows, often called English sparrows, are for many in this country considered the low-life of the bird world, although some around here would place crows ahead of them with that honor.

Native to most of Europe and much of Asia, house sparrows have been intentionally or accidentally introduced to many other regions of the world, making them the most widely distributed wild bird, with over half a billion estimated in the U.S. alone. Because of their abundance, they are also one of the most researched birds in the world.

The U.S. invasion by house sparrows can be traced to New Yorker Eugene Schieffelin, who supposedly brought them here in the mid-1800s to preserve the trees around his family’s Madison Square home, which were being decimated by insect larvae the sparrows could feed upon.

As they proliferated, they were also welcomed by settlers to feed on insects decimating crops, only to learn they did this during nesting season, but would later revert to eating the grains they were sent to protect.

Schieffelin would later form the American Acclimatization Society to introduce to the New World many plants and animals he felt would be interesting. Besides house sparrows, the most successful of his group’s introduction was the European starling, which became an even more damaging agricultural pest. And, also more deadly, with a flock that caused a plane crash in 1960, killing 62 people.

House sparrows are not birds you would typically see in woodland, prairie, or desert settings. No, they are too smart for that, as they quickly have learned to survive best around people, first in agricultural areas and now at our homes, bird feeders, fast-food parking lots, and trash barrels. They feed mostly on the seeds of grains and weeds, but will eat berries, insects, and other small animals.

While house sparrows are mostly brown and tan, males also have black markings and gray caps.

They are reproductively very successful, with young able to breed shortly after they leave their nests and mature adults able to raise multiple broods each year. However, because they damage crops and often out-compete native birds, such as bluebirds, for nesting sites, they are generally disliked and typically not protected like most birds. Cats are one of the house sparrow’s main predators, as both can be found around humans.

Efforts to get rid of house sparrows by trapping or shooting are essentially unsuccessful. And, they aren’t easily deterred, as I once learned, cleaning out nests a male house sparrow had made in a backyard bluebird box 23 days in a row.

I will look forward to hearing from those of you who absolutely hate house sparrows, and encourage you to try to find some enjoyment in seeing them, marvel at their success, and remember many of our ancestors were also once non-native invaders, whose descendants have also prospered.

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