by Alex Forsythe
The House Sparrow was introduced into North America by Europeans who wanted familiar birds from their homeland. The settlers also thought the birds might help to control insects that were damaging their grains. Instead, the birds rapidly proved themselves to be pests and killers of our native birds.
The first eight pairs of House Sparrows were shipped from England in 1850 and released in New York in the spring of 1851. Another one hundred sparrows were brought to the United States in 1852, and several other introductions followed. Several naturalists warned that the birds should not be introduced, but the majority of people disagreed and built nest boxes for them and fed them. By 1880 the public realized, much too late, that it was a mistake to introduce these birds. By 1900 they had spread to the Rocky Mountains. By 1910, they were well-established in California. It is now one of the world’s most abundant songbirds and is on every continent except Antarctica.
Although the sparrows do eat insects while their nestlings are young, the rest of the year they feast on the very grains that they were supposed to protect. Worse, they are aggressive birds that have been known to attack 70 different bird species (Barrows 1889). The most frequent victim of the attacks are bluebirds. House Sparrows regularly kill the nestlings of Eastern Bluebirds, destroy the eggs, and often kill the female bluebird as she sits on the nest. Other common victims include Martins and Tree Swallows. House Sparrows begin nesting as early as late February, claiming the best nesting spots before our native birds begin searching for nest sites. They breed prolifically, with up to four broods per year.
By the early 1900’s, people began to see the error of introducing the non-native House Sparrow, and they began to listen to the voices of ornithologists. Gene Stratton-Porter: “They are such unspeakable pests they are worthy of mention only to advise their extinction.” Henry Van Dyke: “The kingdom of birds is divided into two departments – birds and House Sparrows. House Sparrows are not real birds – they are little beasts!” Birds of America: “The English Sparrow among birds, like the rat among mammals, is cunning, destructive and filthy.” W. L. Dawson: “Without question the most deplorable event in the history of American ornithology was the introduction of the English Sparrow.” By this time, of course, it was too late to eradicate them. Their numbers were simply too great.
Despite their many unattractive qualities, House Sparrows do have some redeeming values. The most obvious value is in the area of scientific study. They are accustomed to nesting near humans, so they are more comfortable than most bird species in the company of scientists. This level of comfort allows researchers to study the birds without stressing them as much as other species. Over 5,000 documented studies have been conducted on these birds, with topics ranging from their ability to transmit diseases from poultry to wild birds, and their ability to rapidly adapt and evolve, to their use of grit in their diets, and their tolerance of salt.
To control populations of House Sparrows in your area, the location and maintenance of nest boxes is important. They should not be placed near buildings. Any nesting materials placed in the nest box by House Sparrows should be removed once or twice a week. Cheap bird seed with fillers such as millet, milo and cracked corn should be avoided.
With the exponential growth in population of House Sparrows in the United States, it is surprising that they are suffering a decline in their native home. House Sparrow have decreased by 62% in Europe in the past 30 years. Clever inventions like “bird bricks” are being developed to halt the decline. The bird bricks are hollow masonry nest boxes that can be placed in walls. To see one, go to http://www.wired.com/2013/