Bird Lore: House Sparrow

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Pest or companion? The House Sparrow, just as did the European Starling and the Rock Pigeon, came to the Western Hemisphere at the behest of humans. Its first introduction was in 1851 in Brooklyn. There were additional introductions in San Francisco and Salt Lake City in the 1870s. Those introductions were not without dispute. Ornithologists of the time debated the wisdom of introducing this species into the Americas.

The House Sparrow does well around human habitation, residential, agricultural, and commercial. It is not found in forests, native grasslands or deserts unless there are human dwellings present. It may be found in some Edmonds neighborhoods, depending upon the availability of nest sites and food. There are a couple of small populations along the Edmonds waterfront, concentrated in areas of Himalayan blackberry brambles.

Weeds and grass seeds, as well as waste grain, make up most of the House Sparrow diet. It eats some insects, particularly in summer, and has been observed taking smashed insects from the fronts of parked cars. It scavenges food crumbs left by humans and comes to bird feeders for a wide variety of items. The use of safflower seed instead of sunflower seed in feeders will discourage the House Sparrow. It mostly forages by hopping on the ground but it will perch on weed stalks to reach seeds.

The House Sparrow prefers artificial nest sites to natural cavities in trees. It will use bird houses, holes in buildings, rain gutters, street lights, gas station roofs, and signs. It stuffs the hole with coarse, dry vegetation, often until the hole is nearly filled. When it destroys the eggs of native birds using a nest box, it will build its nest on top of the native bird nest. It will often reuse its nest from one brood to the next.

Both parents build the nest of materials such as grasses, weeds, twigs and trash. The nest is often lined with feathers. There are usually three to six eggs that both parents incubate for 10-14 days. The young birds leave the nest about two weeks after hatching. Both parents feed the young while they remain in the nest. This species has two or three broods per year.

The oldest House Sparrow of record was 15 years and 9 months of age when recaptured in a Texas banding operation in 2004. The subspecies introduced to North America is not migratory. There are 12 subspecies, some of them migratory, that are found throughout Europe, Africa and Asia, including the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Host, quarrel and ubiquity are some of the collective nouns for sparrows.

One of the biggest frustrations with the House Sparrow is its negative impact on native species. It not only displaces native birds by taking over natural and artificial nest cavities, it also kills them. As early as 1889 there were reported cases of the House Sparrow attacking 70 different bird species. It also evicts other birds from nest holes, including bluebirds, Purple Martins and Tree Swallows. Those who maintain nest boxes on bluebird trails have to be vigilant about the House Sparrow, which will peck open the eggs of native birds and will kill hatchlings.

North American House Sparrow populations declined by 84 percent between 1966 and 2015. The global population is estimated at 540 million, with 13 percent in the U.S. and 2 percent each in Canada and Mexico. The rise of industrial agriculture has eliminated a lot of rural habitat (farmyards and barns) that attracted the House Sparrow. Because of the size of the world-wide population, for environmental purposes it is considered a species of least concern.

You can hear the chirps of a House Sparrow here: http://www.xeno-canto.org/385838.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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