I put safflower seed in my bird feeder, mostly because the squirrels won't eat it, but also because house sparrows aren't supposed to like it much. But apparently, no one told my house sparrows that.
When I first started feeding safflower seed, years ago, our local house sparrows didn't seem to be overly impressed. I really think they would have preferred sunflower seed (which is also not supposed to be among their favorite foods). But they certainly learned to like it.
House sparrows are abundant, yet not native to America. That's not a popular combination. And so, house sparrows are one of the few species you can kill any time, anywhere, with no restrictions at all. Destroy their eggs, destroy their nests, nothing is off-limits. Yet they thrive.
I always look for ways to keep them off my feeders, without any success at all. I destroy their nests, if they build them above my porch light or in my garage. And when I used to go bird-watching, house sparrows were never anything I wanted to see.
And yet, this article in the Smithsonian is making me rethink my prejudices a bit:
Even if you don’t know it, you have probably been surrounded by house sparrows your entire life. Passer domesticus is one of the most common animals in the world. It is found throughout Northern Africa, Europe, the Americas and much of Asia and is almost certainly more abundant than humans. The birds follow us wherever we go. House sparrows have been seen feeding on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building. They have been spotted breeding nearly 2,000 feet underground in a mine in Yorkshire, England. If asked to describe a house sparrow, many bird biologists would describe it as a small, ubiquitous brown bird, originally native to Europe and then introduced to the Americas and elsewhere around the world, where it became a pest of humans, a kind of brown-winged rat. None of this is precisely wrong, but none of it is precisely right, either.
We used to call them "English sparrows," and I'd always just assumed that they were native to Great Britain, if not Europe in general. But apparently, the genus evolved in Africa, and the modern house sparrow became associated with the earliest human agriculture in the Middle East. As human agriculture spread throughout Europe, house sparrows spread with it.
And they've been spreading with human beings ever since. In a way, they're a lot like cats and dogs.
What is clear is that eventually sparrows became associated with human settlements and agriculture. Eventually, the house sparrow began to depend on our gardened food so much so that it no longer needed to migrate. The house sparrow, like humans, settled. They began to nest in our habitat, in buildings we built, and to eat what we produce (whether our food or our pests).
Meanwhile, although I said all house sparrows come from one human-loving lineage, there is one exception. A new study from the University of Oslo has revealed a lineage of house sparrows that is different than all the others. These birds migrate. They live in the wildest remaining grasslands of the Middle East, and do not depend on humans. They are genetically distinct from all the other house sparrows that do depend on humans. These are wild ones, hunter-gatherers that find everything they need in natural places. But theirs has proven to be a far less successful lifestyle than settling down.
In grade school, I was taught that house sparrows were deliberately introduced into America in order to control insect pests. Since they're seed-eaters, that seemed particularly dense, another example of human beings screwing up the natural world. (OK, I doubt if that's exactly how my teachers put it.)
Again, that's true, but not the whole truth.
In Europe, in the 1700s, local governments called for the extermination of house sparrows and other animals associated with agriculture, including, of all things, hamsters. In parts of Russia, your taxes would be lowered in proportion to the number of sparrow heads you turned in. Two hundred years later came Chairman Mao Zedong.
Mao was a man in control of his world, but not, at least in the beginning, of the sparrows. He viewed sparrows as one of the four “great” pests of his regime (along with rats, mosquitoes and flies). The sparrows in China are tree sparrows, which, like house sparrows, began to associate with humans around the time that agriculture was invented. Although they are descendants of distinct lineages of sparrows, tree sparrows and house sparrows share a common story. At the moment at which Mao decided to kill the sparrows, there were hundreds of millions of them in China (some estimates run as high as several billion), but there were also hundreds of millions of people. Mao commanded people all over the country to come out of their houses to bang pots and make the sparrows fly, which, in March of 1958, they did. The sparrows flew until exhausted, then they died, mid-air, and fell to the ground, their bodies still warm with exertion. Sparrows were also caught in nets, poisoned and killed, adults and eggs alike, anyway they could be. By some estimates, a billion birds were killed. These were the dead birds of the great leap forward, the dead birds out of which prosperity would rise.
Of course moral stories are complex, and ecological stories are too. When the sparrows were killed, crop production increased, at least according to some reports, at least initially. But with time, something else happened. Pests of rice and other staple foods erupted in densities never seen before. The crops were mowed down and, partly as a consequence of starvation due to crop failure, 35 million Chinese people died. The great leap forward leapt backward, which is when a few scientists in China began to notice a paper published by a Chinese ornithologist before the sparrows were killed. The ornithologist had found that while adult tree sparrows mostly eat grains, their babies, like those of house sparrows, tend to be fed insects.
Simplistic thinking is OK in grade school, but not so much elsewhere in life. Indeed, it can be very dangerous.
I've always thought of house sparrows as being an invasive species, as indeed, they are. But so are human beings. More to the point, our buildings, our yards, our neighborhoods, these are their native habitat. If house sparrows still have a native habitat, at least, it's wherever we human beings live.
I don't know. I'm still not happy about house sparrows descending on my bird feeder like a swarm of locusts. I'd much rather see a variety of species. But I'm going to try to look on house sparrows a little more kindly now. After all, they've been with us a long, long time. And indeed, their story is a lot more interesting than I'd thought.