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365 Urban Species. #055: House Sparrow

Urban species #055: House sparrow Passer domesticus

The house sparrow has probably been an urban bird longer than any other. It is now the most widely distributed songbird, found nearly world-wide (including isolated spots like the Galapagos, and Easter Island). The house sparrow has begun to speciate, and each region of the world where it occurs has a house sparrow that is very slightly different from the others, but distinct.

This bird, like the pigeon, had the good fortune to be native to the area where agriculture was invented, in Northern Africa. This bold granivorous bird found that its bipedal primate neighbors were growing seed-producing grasses and weeds in massive amounts. The house sparrow began an association that has continued for thousands of years. As grain-growing humans spread, the sparrow followed. Surpluses in grain made it possible for huge numbers of people to settle together, in cities. Though we don't think about it much today, until the last 100 years,cities ran on horse and ox power. Horses and oxen run on grain, and so the house sparrow was happy to adapt to an urban lifestyle.

When they reached the British Isles, the bird acquired the name "English sparrow," and bore some of that people's national pride. For this reason, as well as the misguided belief that sparrows help control crop pests (they do eat some pest invertebrates--insect larvae--during the nesting season, but they are more likely to feed on the crops themselves) these birds were brought to the many places that the English colonized. Passer domesticus, with several thousand years of practice existing in a human-altered ecosystem, now outcompete native birds in and around cities on six of seven continents. They still favor grain, but have adapted to survive on nearly any edible scraps available.

House sparrows are not closely related to North American sparrows, but are in a group called African weaver finches. These birds weave elaborate oriole-like nests, but house sparrows gave that up for simple tree, ledge, or cavity nests. They can nest nearly anywhere that provides a bit of shelter. Electric signs, air conditioners, heating vents, abandoned buildings, and all manner of urban nooks can suit them. They have been known to evict other birds from nest holes, killing the eggs or nestlings therein.

House sparrows will make use of bird feeders, and if allowed to, will dominate them, preventing other birds from feeding. They have been observed picking insects from the grills of vehicles at truck stops, and entering food stores to sample spills in the aisles. Pest control companies and poultry farmers are kept busy devising sparrow-exclusion techniques. But since the mid 1800's, the genie has been out of the bottle: house sparrows will probably be an urban species for as long as there will be cities.

Male house sparrow: http://www.youtube.com/?v=7Hk4QEV5qZA


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 24th, 2006 11:40 pm (UTC)
i find it so fascinating that when house sparrows nest in groups, their fledglings usually all fledge the same day!

did you know that the city of boston used to employ someone to kill the shrikes that were killing house sparrows on boston commons?
Feb. 24th, 2006 11:42 pm (UTC)
I did not know that. Try to find a shrike today! (I've never seen one.)
Feb. 24th, 2006 11:44 pm (UTC)
i've never seen one either. (they're somewhat more common out west, like a lot of birds that were decimiated here, but i never saw one when i lived there, either.) in just one summer, the person killed 50 of them.
Feb. 25th, 2006 12:45 am (UTC)
You've covered the three wild bird species that are specifically not covered by the Federal Migratory Bird Act: Rock Dove/Pigeon, European Starling, and House Sparrow. These birds generally don't require a permit to rehab or raise at home, so they're often a first choice for new rehabbers or elementary school classes.
Feb. 25th, 2006 02:47 am (UTC)
That video doesn't work but hey, thanks! It lead me to an hour of fun culminating in this
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlMh0vTeu3Y&search=baby (baby birds)

and starting in the one called "too much baby powder"

and my worst nightmare but still...funny
Feb. 25th, 2006 03:21 am (UTC)
Sorry about that--having some problems with youtube. I'll have it sorted out soon.
Oct. 30th, 2009 12:45 pm (UTC)
Shouldn't We Be
trapping and destroying house sparrows (in the US)?

As an urban birder, I've begun an aggressive eradication campaign and I've already seen a large increase in the number and number of species of birds in my immediate neighborhood. Most notable is the prevalence of chickadees and downey woodpeckers.

Don't we have a duty to correct this man-made environmental disaster?
Oct. 30th, 2009 03:02 pm (UTC)
Re: Shouldn't We Be
That's an arguable position. At the Urban Ecology conference I went to this year, one of the plenary speakers made a case that the house sparrow was entrenched enough that control efforts are a waste of time and money (in so many words). Conservationists present were suitably horrified.

I think it's possible and desirable to prevent their spread to new and vulnerable habitats. There may be no removing them from older cities. This week I destroyed 8 of them, as they are pests in one of my enclosures. Not sure how much of a population impact that will make.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


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