Lest there be any confusion, the cheery and sociable house sparrow is not a native of North America nor a relative of our native sparrows like the American tree sparrow that visits winter feeding stations.
The house sparrow belongs to a family of birds called weaver finches. They are found throughout Europe and in much of Africa and Asia, and were introduced into this country in 1851 when a few house sparrows were released in Brooklyn, N.Y., by European settlers to remind them of home and to control insect pests.
The house sparrow was introduced in the Twin Cities area in 1875 and became established as a breeding bird two years later. Many of the early ones perished when weather conditions were especially severe. It took some years to develop a breed hardy enough to endure the long, cold winters.
Both sexes of the bird are brown and gray. Males have a notable black bib and gray cap. They are seed- and insect-eaters.
When living in parks and around shopping centers in cities, house sparrows seldom move more than a mile from their birthplace. Those in small towns and on farms often flock to outlying fields in summer. Shelter in winter is essential to them as a house sparrow without a roost and food will die after 15 hours at 32 degrees. They often roost together on ivy-covered walls, but in cold weather I sometimes find them roosting singly in niches and corners of buildings. They are one of the few links that some people in cities have with the outdoor world. No other wild creature may do so much to cheer us up. Out of the whole living world, we are the ones they have chosen to be their friends.
Jim Gilbert is an author and retired naturalist.