Wednesday, March 7, 2012

House sparrows - the most common bird in the world

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.


Jim Harris said...

I've always liked watching the common sparrow. I think they are pretty little birds. I never knew they were considered a pest.

I got to see a red-headed woodpecker today. Usually I only see sparrows, robins and doves around my house.

Anonymous said...

When I was growing up in the Midwest, we hated English sparrows because they pushed out the desirable native birds. They have harsh and loud voices, so we called them "crepe hangers", but the common name for them in the Midwest was "spatzie", from the German for "sparrow". IMO they're "trash birds".

WCG said...

There were lots of red-headed woodpeckers when I grew up, but I seldom see them these days. According to Wikipedia, they've "seriously declined since 1966." But I'm in a little different habitat today, too.

Re. sparrows, I really like our native sparrows. We have a pretty good selection of them here in Nebraska. Of course, most people see a little brown bird and think they're all the same (which is one problem with treating house sparrows as a pest).

WCG said...

That's what I was always told, too, but I'm not sure how much house sparrows push out native species. Starlings do, I'm sure. And house sparrows will readily nest in bluebird boxes. But we might be blaming house sparrows for something we're doing ourselves, just by destroying habitat.

House sparrows have been living with human beings for a long time, and they're very well adapted to us. I really don't know if we'd have significantly more native birds without them.

So I think that considering them to be "trash birds" might be a bit simplistic. And as I mentioned to Jim, it can be dangerous when most people don't know one sparrow from another.

Tony Williams said...

They are very common here in the UK, as you might expect, but are not considered to be pests - just rather ordinary. They are not pretty or musical enough to be valued in the same way that the robin or blue tit are.

Curiously, the house I've been living in for over 25 years has a wild garden which attracts quite a variety of birds, but I don't think I've ever seen a house sparrow here. Maybe it's not domestic enough!

WCG said...

I don't live right on the tracks, but there's a railroad line not too far away. And around here, there's a lot of grain hauled by train, frequently with some scattered along the way. Plus, there are grain silos nearby.

So there are a lot of house sparrows in this part of town (pigeons, too, though they don't come to my feeders). In other parts of town, there aren't nearly as many. Many people just see the occasional house sparrow at their feeders.

So yes, I can believe that, Tony. I'm just in the right place for "trash birds," I guess. :)

Anonymous said...

I can't believe what I am reading! "Trash birds!" it breaks my heart to hear others talk that way about a living thing - especially a bird.

WCG said...

Yup. This whole post was an attempt to combat that attitude, a bit. But it is a common attitude, especially from people who can't tell one small brown bird from another anyway.

Anonymous said...

How dare people say such horrid things about other living things!
My pet house sparrows are as sweet as pie. Scruffy and Scrappy are so friendly, even my cats like them! But I'm practicly in tears to hear all the horrible things about sparrows. I love mine!

Anonymous said...

I completley agree with you

Unknown said...

I live in Upstate New York and we have house sparrows everywhere and i love them as well as all birds. I look forward to them coming to my yard and bird feeder every day. They are soo cute when they line up on my fence and hop all over the driveway.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree, I have tons of sparrows and other birds. Love them, how can you NOT. I have a special feeder for them with " no waste seeds", larger birds can not get in that feeder. . I have 15 varieties of Feeders for all different kind of birdies.
Love them ALL!!!

Anonymous said...

People say house sparrows are trach!! Well back in the WW2 was a lady her name Clare Kipp and she was a air-raid warden and she have a sparrow bird his name Clarence, and during the war she used to take clerence around her neighborhood to bring comfort to children and wounded soldiers at the same time bombs fell on London, so who is the trach?? This is a true history, the name of the book sold for a farthing. Happy holidays

Anonymous said...

Ignorance is rampant and ignorance is bliss. The release of the house sparrow by the early settlers was by far one of the biggest bird related errors in human history; just ask any of the very FEW human beings who have dedicated there lives to the survival of bluebirds and purple martins. There are far more people who are part of the problem, than those who are part of the solution. I euthanize house sparrows at every opportunity and will continue to do so, thanks to the profound ignorance of the general populace. No regrets, no apologies. Visit and get a grip on reality if you really care about native bird populations.

Bill Garthright said...

It's a bit late for that, Anonymous. House sparrows are here to stay. Killing them won't accomplish anything, because there are always plenty more to flood into open territory.

I've worked on bluebird trails in the past, and I'd pull out any house sparrow nests. But the best solution seemed to be to put bluebird boxes in habitat that wasn't near buildings (which attracts house sparrows) or brush (which attracts wrens).

Of course, it's not that simple. But I've seen open-air warehouses where they poison the birds in an attempt to keep house sparrows and starlings out. It doesn't work. It gives them a bunch of dead and dying birds, but there are always plenty more moving in.

Around the house, I seem to have fewer house sparrows these days, since house finches moved into the area (from the east or the west, I don't know which). I suppose they compete. Certainly, when house finches are here, they tend to monopolize the bird feeders.

Johnnie Ipock said...

Some people just like to kill things. On one hand they say killing the animals is necessary for the animals survival. Such as hunters to say "thinning the heard" is necessary to keep others from starving. Then to turn around and say they kill other animals to keep the numbers down, like a badger cull or killing sparrows. Doesn't make any sense. I love all the birds. They are all welcome in my yard. I have sparrows, goldfinches, blue birds, blue jays, cardinals, downy woodpeckers, pigeons, starlings, black capped chickadees, titmouses, cowbirds, wrens, ravens, seagulls, hawks (even saw a bald eagle a few times), small mammals. . Red squirrels, gray squirrels, woodchucks, and chipmunks. Some days I feel like Ace Ventura. ��

Bill Garthright said...

Well, "thinning the herd" is necessary, Johnnie, especially when we have eliminated an animal's natural predators.

When we kill off the predators, their prey will have only disease and starvation to keep their numbers in check - or people, killing with guns and/or vehicles.

At the same time, yes, some people just like to kill things. I've known 'hunters' who shoot animals - not just game animals, but prairie dogs, for example - and then just let them rot. They're too picky to eat game. They just want to shoot living, breathing targets.

And, of course, natural predators tend to remove the sick and the lame, the young and the old. Natural predators keep the population healthy. Human hunters typically look to kill the strongest and healthiest of a species. Still, animals need predators, one way or another.

When it comes to birds, we've killed the hawks which prey on other birds. But we've brought cats, which are predators unlike any others. Typically, predator numbers vary with the abundance of prey. But cats are fed by people, so they can kill and kill and kill without affecting their numbers much at all.

From what I've heard, feeders and bird baths increase the danger of disease. Certainly, the neighborhood cats tend to collect around my bird-feeders.

But that's the way it goes. With 7.5 billion human beings on the planet, we affect everything, often in complex ways. We have to accept that and just do the best we can.

Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

I was ok with them until they killed a mother bluebird on her nest. Now I take their eggs out of the nest boxes.

Bill Garthright said...

Yes, house sparrows (and house wrens) are definitely a problem if you're trying to encourage bluebirds! Habitat helps the most there, but typically, that's not something we can change much.

Anywhere around buildings - at least, here in Nebraska - house sparrows will be a huge problem. (And anywhere that's too brushy will attract wrens.) With other species, pairing bluebird boxes helped (a tree swallow might take one box, leaving the second for bluebirds). But sparrows and wrens are too aggressive for that.