When I became interested in bluebirds and met bluebird aficionados, I quickly learned that house sparrows are regarded as feathered devils.
House sparrows usually are city birds or country birds, one or the other. They chirp endlessly in shrubs in city yards or hang around barns in small flocks.
They’re not so much suburban. House sparrows have been at our feeders only twice in our 13 years in suburban Orono.
These birds are nonnative species, which is Strike One. Strike Two, they nest in cavities, aggressively competing for a limited natural resource.
The nesting boxes placed for native Eastern bluebirds are perfect for sparrows’ tangled nests. Those so-called feathered devils can be ruthless in protecting a box or driving out occupants.
On the golf course where I tend bluebird boxes, sparrows are a problem only when my boxes are within a few hundred feet of an old barn. In the distant past it sheltered horses, today replaced by golf carts. Sparrows have long memories regardless of short lives.
The family to which house sparrows belong, the passer family, is worldwide. The full scientific name of our house sparrow is passer domesticus, a domestic bird. Eurasian and Northern African in origin, they are among species known as Old World birds.
Our native sparrows are New World birds. An example would be our white-throated sparrow.
Our sparrows are not related to the passer family, regardless of name. If you are small and brown, the common name sparrow serves as one size fits all.
The “Handbook of the Birds of the World” recognizes 28 passer species. This is said to be the best known group of birds on the planet. Passer sparrows are everywhere, following the distribution of humans.
Some scientists say the species could not survive without us.
Different passer species evolved as landscape changes — glaciations millions of years ago — isolated particular populations, creating evolutionary opportunities.
House sparrows were invited to Europe by well-meaning humans. Ditto North America and Australia.
Our house sparrows were first released in New York City’s Central Park by a guy named Nicholas Pike. Pike is said to have spent $200 on his collection trip to Europe. He released eight pairs in NYC. It was a failed investment. The birds did not survive.
Undeterred, more sparrows were released in 1851, 1852 and 1853. In following years they were introduced in several other U.S. cities, including St. Paul in 1876.
House sparrows eat seeds and grain, fortifying nestling growth with insects. These sparrows are gregarious, most often found in flocks. They are bold scavengers. (Look around your table at an outdoor cafe.)
And they are prolific breeders. They lay as many as eight eggs per clutch, can raise four broods per year, and are sexually mature in nine months. In spite of this and their adaptability, the North American population is in decline. The same thing is happening in England.
Observers suggest that changes in agricultural practices have reduced the availability of wintertime food. The birds did better when power meant horse.
Many people regard house sparrows as pests because they are nonnative. They surely are competitors with native birds.
But house sparrows have fans who believe city neighborhoods would not be the same without the enthusiastic chirping of the sparrows in the shrubs.
Have you heard them? They do chirp. Native sparrows sing.
Read Jim Williams’ birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.