BIRD WATCH: A history of the bothersome house sparrow

“OH, THAT’S A pretty little bird! I wonder what it is.”

It’s almost impossible to realize I once said that when I saw my first house sparrow. Back then, this introduced species was known as the English sparrow.

That first visit was sometime in the ’60s. The bird was a male. They weren’t around when I was growing up in this area.

Like other introduced bird species, their population increase was record-breaking. This bird is almost everywhere, but it doesn’t like our forest lands.

This member of the weaverbird family prefers a habitat frequented by the human population. It can be found in large numbers in cities or on farms where there is grain readily available.

It can become a problem around feeders and frequently takes over nesting sites for other birds. When the opening on a birdhouse is large enough to accommodate house sparrows, it won’t be available for more desirable species such as chickadees, swallows and nuthatches.

Shakespeare lovers get the blame for bringing the equally bothersome starling to North America, but they don’t get the blame for the introduction of house sparrows to this continent.

That honor goes to Nicholas Pike, who brought eight pairs from England and released them in Brooklyn in the spring of 1851. Pike was the director of the Brooklyn Institute and didn’t give up easily.

That first introduction species failed, and in 1852, he returned to England and shipped a larger number to Brooklyn. Most of them were released in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery in the spring of 1853.

The rest is history. It only took 40 years for these birds to occupy the entire continental United States and spread north into Canada. Its fast occupation is credited to the birds being released in numerous areas besides Brooklyn.

When the first house sparrow took up residence in our yard, we had only been living in the house for a year or two. This is an old, old house and had the problems associated with houses approaching the century mark.

The sparrows discovered a slight crack just below the eaves where they could get into the house walls. It’s a little unsettling to hear birds moving about in your walls.

We couldn’t get at them without tearing into the structure, and the sparrows decided this was the perfect place to build their nest. They did and the eggs hatched and the entire family was now rustling about in the walls. Enter the villain.

It just so happens that house sparrows and starlings don’t get along. Both birds have scrappy personalities, but the starling’s large size is an advantage. Its long sharp beak is also a formidable weapon.

There were starlings in our neighborhood at that time, but they didn’t exist in numbers anywhere near today’s population. The starlings discovered where the house sparrows were nesting and for several days a fierce battle was waged.

The starlings won. The walls were silent and the male sparrow sat chirping pitifully over the loss of his family.

Before the starlings could move in, boards were nailed over the opening under the eaves. That didn’t get done earlier because the babies could be heard and sealing them in wasn’t an option.

Today, the starling-house sparrow problems are only larger, but in many areas, their numbers appear to have stabilized and in some places even diminished.

Feeders filled with sunflower seeds instead of mixed bird seed means fewer or no sparrows feeding at them.

Houses with the correct opening make it possible to once again have birds other than the house sparrows in them.

I no longer think of house sparrows as “pretty little birds,” because even in the bird world, some prejudices do exist.


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected].

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