For the Birds Radio Program: House Sparrow

Original Air Date: Jan. 25, 2008

The Artful Dodgers of the bird world are welcome in cities, but not so much in wilder areas.

Duration: 4′15″


The House Sparrow, one of America’s most familiar birds, is found in virtually every habitat where humans live or work, from our biggest urban centers to small towns and farms. Sparrows can live just about anywhere there’s a building. When I was a little girl, I called these voracious French fry consumers McDonald’s Sparrows. I’ve seen them at interstate rest stops in the middle of inhospitable deserts and warming up behind neon lights in frozen cities.

Like most Americans today, the ancestors of House Sparrows originally came from Africa and the Middle East, via Europe and Asia. And just as the original human European invaders disrupted the lives of Native American humans and decimated their populations, so these extremely aggressive avian invaders have disrupted the lives of native birds and decimated local populations of native cavity nesters. Since virtually no native birds nest behind neon lights or in the crevices of high rise apartment buildings, urban sparrows aren’t a problem, and indeed, they enhance the lives of many people who find their animated cheeping sounds a welcome part of the urban landscape. But in wilder habitats, House Sparrows can be a serious issue. Although they’re significantly smaller than bluebirds, they destroy bluebird nests and eggs and even kill adults. It’s inappropriate to subsidize House Sparrows where they compete with bluebirds or other native species since House Sparrows thrive in many places where these more vulnerable species don’t. But House Sparrows are an integral and enriching part of the urban landscape.

House Sparrows primarily eat cereal grains and weed seeds. Cheap grocery store birdseed mixtures often include filler seeds that native birds shun but that House Sparrows do take. Unless you’re willing to pay attention to make sure all the seeds you’re offering are being eaten, it’s wise to pass on cheap mixes, since uneaten seeds may rot, contaminating fresh seeds with fungus or bacteria. Of course, House Sparrows aren’t fussy—they often take semi-digested seeds from horse and cow dung. It’s virtually never a good idea to offer bread, which is too popular with rats and mice.

If House Sparrows visit your feeders in large flocks, make sure you keep your yard clean. Rake occasionally to remove seed hulls, and don’t allow droppings to accumulate. This will keep your feeding area safer both for any native birds that visit and also for the House Sparrows themselves.

Backyard House Sparrows are very enjoyable to watch. They remind me of little Artful Dodgers, quick and stealthy at grabbing opportunities for food and shelter. In my neighborhood in Duluth, I once had a flock that roosted in my neighbor’s shrubs against their leaky basement. During the coldest periods of winter, the sparrows would rush out of the bushes the moment they heard a car engine stop, fly under the car, and warm up near the still-hot engine. As the car cooled down, they’d fly back out to head for a feeder or their shrub.

House Sparrows thrived before people became more conscientious about making their houses more energy efficient by plugging up heat leaks. They may not be conscientious environmentalists, but they are cool little birds.