For the Birds Radio Program: House Sparrow

Original Air Date: March 13, 1989

Today Laura Erickson talks about the street urchins of the bird world, House Sparrows.

Audio missing


(Recording of a House Sparrow)

This is the first year since I’ve lived in Duluth that I have had a flock of House Sparrows all winter. About thirty of these little street urchins have been pigging out at my feeder, and in spite of the innate birders’ chauvinism that tells me that native American birds are far superior to introduced pests, I have been finding my own sparrow flock wonderfully entertaining—especially since I haven’t had much else at my feeder this year.

House Sparrows could have been invented by Charles Dickens. They have all the street smarts of the Artful Dodger. These birds originated in Africa, and have the same needs for warmth as Dickens’ orphans. Like Oliver Twist, they aren’t invited into the homes of fancy people, but they manage to get along on their wits alone.

How do they stay warm enough? On windy days my flock always sits on the leeward side of thick spruces, low enough in the branches to get added protection from snowdrifts. On the coldest days, they are constantly on the alert for automobiles. Whenever my neighbors drive home, the sparrows fly under the car the moment it stops, without even waiting for the driver to get out before they swoop under the engine to soak up its heat. They stay under the car for several minutes, but once it cools down, they return to the spruce tree again.My front porch is painted dark brown, and soaks up the afternoon sun, becoming the warmest place in the vicinity. So every sunny afternoon, the sparrows congregate on the porch.

Like Dicken’s characters, they take whatever food scraps they can find. For water they lap up dripping icicles. They have a basic mistrust of people, and are always on the alert, ready to fly away the moment a person approaches. They have learned that my appearance outside is associated with the feeder being filled, but in their perception I’m not putting out the food for them—I’m just a foolish lady who leaves valuables laying around where they can steal them. They don’t come down for a conversation as I fill the feeder the way the chickadees do—the House Sparrows wait in the wings until the coast is clear. Their favorite food is grocery store seed mixes, but I don’t usually set that out unless the weather is particularly hard. On the worst days I also put out bread, but the rest of the time they manage to open sunflower seeds.

There are many country places in the Northland where House Sparrows don’t come at all. Many of the entries in our backyard bird contest this year didn’t mention House Sparrows. Before European settlers brought them to America, House Sparrows simply didn’t exist here, and a case could be made that they don’t belong here now. But like all descendants of immigrants, this is where they are now, and we might as well make the best of them.

Now that the days are growing longer, my sparrows are acting like a bunch of adolescents who don’t quite know how to go about finding romance. The males are approaching the females and showing off, but the females seem to want something a bit more dashing and sophisticated. I watched one male sidle up to a female on a branch last week, so intent on making an impression on her that he didn’t notice until it was too late that he was actually on a different branch. He fell off and landed, mortified, on the ground. I don’t think he’s ever going to score with her. As he fell, she gave him a look of supreme disdain, and I could swear I heard her say, “Ye gods, gag me with a spoon!”

(Recording of a House Sparrow)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”