Meditations on House Sparrows

By Kristen Lindquist | Mar 28, 2011

If you know me or my husband, you might be surprised to learn that we own wedding china. Since we’re hardly formal types, it’s probably less surprising that we chose a particular bird-themed English earthenware. Our plates, mugs, and bowls are covered with British birds: turtledove, European robin, puffin, lapwing, blue tit, black-headed gull. I love our dishes, and because I’m always afraid I’m going to break a piece featuring one of my favorite birds — the kestrel, perhaps, or snowy owl — I push those to the back of the cupboard and use the less special ones first. My cereal bowl most mornings, for example, is the sparrow.

In England, there are only two sparrow species: house and tree. My bowl depicts a house sparrow. These Old World sparrow species are only distantly related to the dozens of sparrow species found here in the United States. In Maine alone you can see more than 20 species of New World sparrows. Despite that, Mainers are more likely to have seen a house sparrow than any of our native sparrows. Introduced in the 1850s with horrifying success, the house sparrow has become a ubiquitous urbanite, looked down upon with the same disdain reserved for the (also introduced) pigeon and starling. It’s become one of the most common species in the country and one of the most widespread species in the entire world. So that’s how my sparrow bowl came to be used more than any of the others—because there’s nothing special about a house sparrow, at least not on this side of the Atlantic.

Familiarity can breed affection, however. Because I use my house sparrow bowl almost every day, I’ve developed a special fondness for it. And I hesitate to say it, but this fondness has carried over just a little bit into real life. In the middle of a snowy winter, birds often seem few and far between. But you can always count on the house sparrow. The park hedgerow at the corner of Main Street and Atlantic Avenue in Camden teems with house sparrows any time of year. The other day I walked past this leafless thicket of shrubbery and noticed that it was swarming with them, mostly hidden by branches and snow, but sounding admirably vigorous. The house sparrow’s song, an insistent, repetitive “cheep,” conveys a certain sassy attitude and robustness, especially when there’s a flock of them calling all at once. The musical hedge sounded very much alive on that cold winter’s afternoon.

A male house sparrow is not an unattractive bird, either, which is probably one reason why it’s pictured on my bowl. Puffier than our native sparrows, the male in breeding plumage sports a black bib, rusty nape, patterned reddish-brown back, and smooth grey belly. As is often the case with birds, the female’s much plainer, recognizable for her overall drabness. The house sparrow is a gregarious bird, roosting and nesting communally, and almost always found near towns. If there are buildings, it will come. If there are buildings and lots of food, it will come even faster and in greater numbers. In the summer when you’re dining al fresco, those little grayish-brown birds pecking for crumbs at your feet are house sparrows. They can be quite aggressive, chasing each other with vigor and coming brazenly close for the chance to grab a snack.

While this can be “cute” on a small scale, the bird’s aggression and appetite have given it a bad reputation worldwide. First introduced in Brooklyn, N.Y., around 1851 by Nicholas Pike to help get rid of insect pests, the birds quickly thrived by eating seeds in horse droppings. Horse-powered transportation thus fostered what quickly became a burgeoning population of this newcomer. Portland, Maine, holds the dubious honor of being one of the first American cities to host the bird, when a Colonel Rhodes of Quebec released several pairs there on his way home from England to Quebec in 1854. The subsequent craze of introducing the bird all over the country stands as a perfect example of why following a fad isn’t always a good idea.

From the cities where it was introduced, the house sparrow spread into the countryside, where it quickly became an agricultural pest devastating seed crops, fruits, and grain stores. Thomas Nuttall referred to them as “ruffians in feathers” in his “Popular Handbook of the Ornithology of Eastern North America” and asserted that they “have taken possession of every town and village, from Cape Breton to Florida, and west to the plains.” This was published in 1896, less than 50 years after the sparrow’s initial introduction.

The house sparrow also drove away native birds from bird houses and nest holes. Apparently a flock of house sparrows is a force to be reckoned with, even for a larger bird. House wren, purple martin, bluebird, and swallow populations were all and continue to be adversely affected by house sparrow competition. While it thrives on its connection to humans, the bird certainly hasn’t done much to endear itself to us, not that that’s the role of a wild creature.

In his 1920s classic “Birds of Massachusetts and Other States,” Edward Forbush declared generously, “[The house sparrow] has been branded as thief, wretch, feathered rat, etc. etc., but whatever may be said about it, the bird is certainly important....  In any case, it is here to stay and we must make the best of it.” He went on to describe it as “a sturdy, upstanding little fowl, aggressive, pugnacious and active.” I think he rather admired the house sparrow. While I’m sure it wasn’t because he had one on his cereal bowl, something about the bird mitigated his attitude toward a creature that he also called “one of the comparatively few injurious species of the world.”

Forbush was already noting that the replacement of horses by cars was helping keep in check the house sparrow hordes. For better or worse, increased use of pesticides on crops in the past half-century has had a similar effect. Yet a mass of house sparrows still cheerily chirps away in Harbor Park and on street corners in every other town and city. It’s certainly here to stay, and perhaps the only way we can “make the best of it” at this point is to find something to admire — its tenacity, its perky demeanor, or the vitality it embodies even as the snow and cold of late winter linger on.

 

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