A dentist office is not normally a place I like to bird. But a week ago I was condemned to spend a few hours in the chair. At a time such as that, one comes to appreciate the entertainment of a bird feeder outside the window. During the 20 minutes it took for my lip to numb, I had an opportunity to contemplate house sparrows.
I don’t contemplate them much. It’s hard to get excited about a bird that makes its home in a McDonald’s parking lot. Guidebooks classify this species among the Old World Sparrows and they are not closely related to our native sparrows. They are among the earliest species known to man and are depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics. From the dawn of time they have evolved with people, staying near civilization. They’ve been kept as pets and used as food for millennia. These birds are so comfortable among humans that they are sometimes cursed more often than they are blessed. As usual, we have only ourselves to blame.
The house sparrow was deliberately introduced to America in the middle of the 19th century by people who surely meant well. Some were released in New York City around 1851. In 1854 and 1858, the sparrows were introduced in Portland, Maine. While similar releases occurred around the country, the biggest effort can be credited to the Cincinnati Acclimatization Society, which set free 4,000 European songbirds representing at least 18 species, including house sparrows and European starlings. Most introductions failed, but the sparrows and starlings spread across the country faster than an Internet rumor.
The stated purposes for the introductions were multifold. Some believed that the European birds brought familiar comfort to recent immigrants. One society desired to introduce to America all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare. For certain, it was thought that the house sparrows would help to control caterpillars and insects. While it’s true that the sparrows do consume a few pests, it’s only a small amount during nesting season. Otherwise, seed is the primary food for sparrows and they quickly found their way into grain fields. House sparrows became bigger pests than the pests they were meant to control.
Worse, the sparrows evicted some of our native species, particularly bluebirds. Sparrows are cavity nesters and nest earlier than most songbirds. They grab the prime sites for themselves and aggressively win disputes. They will even expel a songbird that is tending hatchlings. As so often happens with invasive species, these European sparrows had no natural enemies in the New World and the population exploded. Early efforts to eradicate house sparrows failed. Federal law still considers them to be invasive and does not give them the protections normally afforded to migratory songbirds.
Today, house sparrows are considered to be the most abundant songbird in the world, established in all but the polar parts of the planet. They reside in all of the lower 48 states and are estimated to number over 150 million in this country alone. As I watched the sparrows at the feeder between my rinse-and-spit cycles, some of the reasons for their success were readily apparent. Any critter that is comfortable around people tends to thrive. Think rats. There are no birds in the world, not even pigeons, that are so dependent on human neighbors. House sparrows prefer to nest in man-made structures, such as holes in buildings and traffic signs. They are simply not found away from cities, towns and farms.
House sparrows gather in boisterous groups that intimidate other birds, defy sneak attacks, and devour a wide range of foods. Birds that normally flock together often maintain a pecking order, and you can see it in house sparrows. The older males with the larger black bibs dominate the younger birds with their smaller bibs. The birds may squabble, but the color code makes actual fighting unnecessary.
Sparrows take advantage of their flocking behavior to avoid predators. As I watched, they clustered amid the branches of the bush and mobbed the feeder together. Any raptor attempting to pick one off would have to dive through the bush, avoiding the thicket to reach its target. This was different from the strategy employed by the chickadees. They would approach the feeder from the tree line, perch on a nearby branch, scan for predators, then dash in and grab a seed.
As I sat in the dentist’s chair, I admired the evolutionary superiority of the sparrow’s big bill. He will never need Novocain.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.