Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Not much love in the world for the house sparrow

STACEY COLE January 17. 2014 8:17PM

It is rare when anyone becomes concerned about the plight of the English or house sparrow (Passer domesticus). This introduced species has frequently been referred to, among other things, as a "trash-bird."

The house sparrow is not really a sparrow, rather it is a member of the Weaverbird family. They are native through the British Isles, most of Europe, Asia and Africa. They are not related to any of our American sparrows as they belong to the finch family (Fringilidae).

The house sparrow's American genesis began when eight pairs were introduced at Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1850 by Hon. Nicholas Pike and other directors of the Brooklyn Museum.

Strange as it may seem, the birds did not thrive and, in 1852, many more were imported. Those that survived that winter in confinement were released in Greenwood Cemetery.

These original introductions did not account for today's population, however. In 1854, more sparrows were released in Portland, Maine, and in 1858, or thereabouts, additional birds were set free at Peacedale, R.I., and Boston.

The birds did not become well-established in Boston, though, until 1869. At New Haven, Conn., sparrows were released in 1867. There are more than a hundred cases on record of the introduction of this bird in various places in the United States and Canada.

They multiplied exceedingly and spread with amazing rapidity. Before 1875, the species is said to have reached the Pacific coast at San Francisco.

In the early 1930s Dr. C. Hart Merriam of the U.S. Department of Agriculture prepared a consensus of reports from many sources containing evidence for and against the house sparrow. The results were: 168 "for," 837 "against" and 43 "neutral."

Edward Howe Forbush in Volume III of "Birds of Massachusetts and other New England States" wrote: "The house sparrow has been introduced in many countries, and wherever it has appeared it has been stigmatized as injurious, pernicious, disreputable, salacious, quarrelsome and even murderous. It has been branded as thief, wretch, feathered rat, etc., etc. During the cycle of its increase in the United States much ink was spilled in denouncing it. Dr. Elliot Coues in 1879 gave a list of more than two hundred titles of articles, most of which were unfavorable to the bird. ...

"In any case it is here to stay and we must make the best of it. It is a sturdy, upstanding little fowl, aggressive, pugnacious and active."

Unfortunately, the house sparrow reduces the number of some of our most useful native birds — bluebirds, tree swallows, house wrens and, occasionally, barn swallows — by destroying their eggs and young. In the case of tree swallows and bluebirds, the sparrows usurp their nest boxes.

For these and other reasons, the house sparrow is not protected by either federal or state law. House sparrows are now probably one of the most easily recognized birds as they are commonly found throughout most of the U.S. and southern Canada.

The house sparrow also has acquired several bad habits since its introduction and it is not particularly cherished by most bird lovers.

Some home owners dislike these sparrows because of their frequent choice of daytime roosting areas in thick shrubbery close to their residence. In that location they call and chatter most of the day and have the ability to get on one's nerves after a while. In addition, house sparrows are most notorious for driving wrens, bluebirds and tree swallows from the nest boxes that they had already selected. Here at the farm it doesn't make any difference whether our native species, (tree swallows, bluebirds, and house wrens) have already selected a nest box, or a cavity hole in a fence post along our fence rows, these interlopers make life just plain miserable for them.

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Another "imported" bird equally disliked is the starling. Small flocks of them spend the winter with us. Here in northern New England they can be found roosting on city buildings and even more frequently be seen sitting on chimney tops warming themselves in the rising heat. Some of these hardy souls remain in rural country. I have been told of individual starlings that found an opening in a barn or farm out-building and when the weather became extremely bitter have sat upon the backs of cows for warmth. Flocks of starlings can become a nuisance even during cold winters.

However, as someone once said: "We have to take the bitter with the sweet."

Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey, 03446.

Nature Talks

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