For the Birds Radio Program: House Sparrows
The Artful Dodgers of the bird world are here to stay. (4:40)
Of all the birds in the world, house sparrows are one of the most familiar to humans. These nondescript “LBJ’s” (little brown jobs) show up in a surprisingly wide range of literature, from the Bible and Shakespeare to Keats and Yeats. They’ve lived alongside people in England throughout historical times, but didn’t arrive in America until well after Columbus. Homesick European immigrants, missing the familiar cheeping of their beloved sparrows, got the idea of· importing them here, and Nicholas Pike released the first eight pairs in a Brooklyn cemetery in 1850. Soon towns and cities throughout the United States were vying to see who could “naturalize” the most sparrows. Now they live in the heart of downtown urban areas as well as in suburbs, rural areas, and parks throughout the country. Males are easy to recognize, sporting a gray cap, black bib, and white cheek set off by a chestnut eye line, giving them a jaunty aspect. Drab females are more easily known by the company they keep.
House sparrows are the artful dodgers of the bird world, snatching up the cast-off crumbs of civilization and stolen heat from electrical lights, neon signs, and crevices into our homes. They break and enter some buildings through small openings in siding or vents, and, in a few places, brazenly fly in and out through light-activated electrical doors. In many areas, house sparrows have even figured out how to steal warmth from car engines. In my neighborhood in Duluth, as well as many other northern cities, when the temperature falls well below zero, sparrows listen for drivers to turn their engines off–they instantly fly down and hop in under the hood from below, not fluttering out until the engine cools.
House sparrows are so completely associated with people that they can live their entire lives without natural food. Humans may not live by bread alone, but house sparrows are the one species of bird that can. Back in the 1800s, some cities justified importing them by insisting that the sparrows would eat gypsy moths or insect pests buzzing around the horse manure littering city streets. As it turned out, though, the birds found so much cast-off human food that they pretty much ignored the bugs. Their population soared to levels we can’t imagine today thanks to the horse manure, since they did pick out undigested seeds in the droppings. When horses were replaced by cars as basic transportation, the sparrow population fell dramatically, but still remained strong. They nest on buildings, and construct their often huge nests mostly from litter and trash. Back in the days before fire codes, sparrows set some ivy-covered clapboard houses afire by incorporating still-smoldering cigar and cigarette butts into their nests.
Except for occasional sanitation problems on buildings, house sparrows aren’t much of a problem in the urban environment today, and their cheerful cheeping is a welcome sound to many city residents. But as cavity and crevice nesters, they cause enormous ecological problems in wilder, more natural settings. In cities they may be as endearing as Dickens’ Artful Dodger, but they become street-smart bullies where they meet up with bluebirds or swallows. Sparrows are aggressive, frequently destroying bluebird eggs and nestlings and sometimes even killing adults. Like so much of natural history, the story of the house sparrow is not simple black and white but grays and browns, much like their plumage. We have as much chance of getting them all to go back to Europe as we do of shipping back those of our own species with European ancestry. Love them or hate them, house sparrows are here to stay.