One of the most common sparrows in North America has a history that’s far more interesting than many people realize.
The house sparrow is among the most frequently seen birds throughout much of the country, including here in Missouri. In urban areas, this small (approximately six inches in length) bird that’s brownish-gray with a few dark streaks is a familiar sight at feeders, backyards, businesses, fast-food parking lots and anywhere else where they can find food. Barns, machine sheds, grain bins and livestock feeders are among the locations house sparrows are found in rural areas.
In other words, house sparrows can be seen many places. One place they won’t be found is in the native sparrow section of a book about North America’s birds. That’s because house sparrows aren’t native to North America. That’s one of several little-known facts about this exotic species which has assumed a dominant position in North America’s bird world since its intentional introduction more than 100 years ago. Before we get to that story, here are some facts about the bird.
There are more than 30 species of North American birds included in the sparrow group (family Emberizidae), but the house sparrow isn’t one of them. The house sparrow belongs Passeridae family. Also known as the English sparrow, the house sparrow is a native of Eurasia and North Africa.
Although they will eat from feeders on occasion, house sparrows tend to forage for food on the ground. They use a hopping movement when not in flight. Their song is a series of single-note chirps. House sparrows aggressively protect their nesting sites. House sparrows have been observed to threaten, and if necessary, attack, more than 50 species of birds that come into their nesting territory.
The aspect of these birds we are most familiar with is the reason they got the name “house sparrow” – they prefer to be around people. Some bird experts theorize this relationship began thousands of years ago in their original Old World ranges when humans formed communities and began farming. It’s theorized the birds were originally migratory, but gradually lost that ability over many generations as they wintered close to humans so they could feed on grain stores, garbage and other materials made available by people. Today, the house sparrow’s link to people has developed to the point that they are much more common around human structures than they are in uninhabited woodlands, grasslands and other areas void of human occupation.
This closeness to people is not always a good thing for humans. Large groups of sparrows can be a pest for farmers and the droppings the birds leave behind can be problematic in rural and urban areas. In addition, their aggressive tactics often create conflicts with native bird species. Although tolerated by some birders, the house sparrow is generally considered to be a nuisance.
Here in the United States, they’re a nuisance we brought upon ourselves. In the mid-1800s, memories of the Old World were still fresh in the mind of many immigrants. Some of America’s newest citizens had enjoyed watching these birds in their homeland and wanted to see them here as well. It was also believed house sparrows could help control insect pests. (Ironically, insects are a relatively small part of a house sparrow’s diet. A large part of their diet consists of seeds and grains.)
House sparrows first appeared in this country when eight pairs were released in Brooklyn in 1851. Other releases were made in the 1870s by the Cincinnati Acclimatization Society. Birds were taken from these initial seed colonies and were intentionally introduced in other parts of the country. These extensive introductions, coupled with the bird’s adaptive qualities, allowed the species to become firmly established throughout the country by the early 1900s.
Over the years, house sparrow numbers exploded and problems soon began. One reason for the bird’s population boom was that its trait of living near humans benefited the bird enormously due to the abundance of food and nesting sites that were provided. Because of their non-migratory nature, house sparrows nested in late winter or early spring. This gave them an advantage in getting choice nesting sites before many migrant species had returned. This, in turn, had a detrimental effect on the nesting success of a number of native species.
Current surveys estimate there are approximately 150 million house sparrows in North America. In Missouri, house sparrows are not protected by Missouri’s Wildlife Code or federal migratory bird regulations so pellet guns are commonly used control methods. However, due to the prevalence of the species, any hopes of permanently eliminating the birds from an area are futile. They can be discouraged from taking up residence around your home, though. Bluebird boxes – a favorite sparrow nesting site – should be up in remote areas away from farm buildings, livestock feeders and other areas where sparrows gather. Putting niger seeds and unshelled sunflower seeds in feeders is another option since these aren’t preferred food items of house sparrows.
Information on how to deal with house sparrow problem, how to enjoy our native sparrows and other birds, as well, can be found at your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office or at www.missouriconservation.org