Wednesday, June 17, 2009

In the backyard... House Sparrow

House SparrowHouse Sparrow, Cornelius, Oregon on 10 January 2004 by Greg Gillson.


McSparrow. Perhaps no bird in the world other than the domestic pigeon is so linked to humans as the House Sparrow. Introduced to North America from European populations in the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s, they spread rapidly. They reached Portland, Oregon in the late 1880s and had a population there of about 500 birds by 1887. They reached Spokane about 1895 and Seattle in 1897.

Ironically, these pest birds were brought to the New World themselves to control insect pests. However, at best, only about 10% of their diet is insects. Primarily they eat weed seeds. They did especially well when travel was primarily by horse-drawn carriage. They ate spilled grain and the undigested seeds in horse droppings. They have been undergoing a measurable population decline since the middle of the 20th century, but are still quite abundant.

In the cities, they found habitat unclaimed by North American birds, except recently the House Finch (See In the backyard... House Finch). So, these birds are quite abundant on city streets and fast-food restaurant trash dumpsters and parking lots (or perhaps I should say car parks in honour of their British background?). However, in the countryside these aggressive little birds took over cavities and bird houses intended for native wrens, swallows, chickadees, and bluebirds.

It is for this reason that most birders don't care to have these birds at their feeders. To reduce House Sparrows from your feeder, do not feed the generic seed mix. It has a lot of "filler" seeds, specifically millet, which House Sparrows love, but native birds don't really care for. House Sparrows are in the Old World weaver family, not the true finches or New World sparrow family. House Sparrows have a more difficult time chewing sunflower seeds than native sparrows and finches. Thus, serving black oil sunflower seeds can make your feeder less attractive to this bird (but not totally, as you can see from the photo above).

These birds are plump and brownish, with a contrasting gray rump, and grayish underparts. Males are patterned quite handsomely with chestnut ear coverts and shoulders. In summer the black throat grows to a black bib across the chest. The female is mostly gray and brown with a broad pale eyeline.