Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Down with the House Sparrow!

Good ole Passer domesticus. Without doubt, one of the most reviled of North American birds, despised by bluebirders and anyone with a liking for cavity-nesting birds, and persecuted by various store-owning merchants. Personally, I admire these little beasts greatly. They are the avian counterparts of cockroaches. Survivors. If an ornithological Armageddon occurs, my money is on the House Sparrow as the last one standing.

They can live nearly anywhere. Deep in coal mines. The most urban of 'hoods. Isolated farms in agricultural boondocks. Enterprising House Sparrows now even eke out a living in the bowels of giant box stores, resting in the rafters and sweeping down for cleanups on aisle six. But the common denominator with these industrious survivors is people. They are seldom far from our shadow.

An interesting thread began today on the Ohio Birds Listerv by a gentleman who noted what seemed like a shortage of House Sparrows recently. This was an astute observation and he is exactly right. House Sparrows, by almost all reckoning of long-term data, are indeed on the downswing, in Ohio and most of North America.

Handsome, jaunty male House Sparrow, photo courtesy of Wikipedia. Actually a very good-looking bird!

In 1851, a Mr. Nicolas Pike obtained 100 of these birds at $2.00 a pop - $200.00 for the lot. He then released them in Brooklyn, New York in late 1851 and early in 1852, and the rest is history.

House Sparrows quickly usurped a void not filled by our native birds - heavily human-modified habitats. This is why they were so successful so quickly, just as have been many Eurasian weeds. These species of Europe have been adapted to the disturbance wrought by people for thousands of years, in some cases, while the native North American flora and fauna were not. Thus, aliens like the House Sparrow quickly gained the upper hand in North America's newly peopled landscapes.

Lovely female House Sparrow, photo once again courtesy of Wikipedia.

But now, these interesting weaver finch allies (they are not true sparrows) are on the decline. This is not only true in North America, but also in their native range of Europe and Asia, where losses are more disturbing.

Many invasive non-native species go through "boom and bust" cycles. They are brought some place new, perhaps exploit an unexploited niche or outcompete the natives that were present, and enjoy a period of largely unchallenged prosperity. Oftentimes, though, Mother Nature eventually marshals her forces, and predators, changes in habitat, and other factors begin to come into play and drive the invaders out.

Our longest-running systematic bird survey is the Breeding Bird Survey, whose routes have been run all over North America since 1966. Overall, BBS data has shown a 2.6% annual drop in House Sparrow populations.

The National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Counts have provided a wealth of data on bird populations. The graph above depicts the last 30 years of data on House Sparrows in the United States. Even though the number of CBC's and observers has increased, the trend is clearly downward for House Sparrows.

This is a graph showing the last 30 years of CBC data, published in the Ohio Cardinal for House Sparrows in Ohio, that I put together for the winter 2007-08 winter season issue. And a shameless plug: please support the Ohio Ornithological Society, which publishes the Cardinal, makes possible the Ohio Birds Listserv, produces the quarterly Cerulean newsletter, supports young birders, hosts all manner of interesting conferences, field trips and symposia, and more. JOIN RIGHT HERE!

The above chart once again shows a steady downward trajectory for our friend the House Sparrow.


No one is certain, but it seems as if much of the drop is in agricultural areas. Cleaner farming practices may be to blame, as technological advances lead to less grain spillage and other waste byproducts which provide much sparrow fodder. Increased use of pesticides which in turn reduce available insects for the birds to forage on also may play a role.

Even if a bird species in not native - and much despised to boot - it is still important to monitor their declines and try and ascertain the reasons for drops. After all, even birds like House Sparrows can be indicators of our ecological health.


Dave said...

Hi Jim,
On our trip to the UK, we learned of the drop in House Sparrow populations there.
It's a well loved little bird there and the decline is a mystery there as well.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

What an interesting post. Maybe the House Sparrow is the proverbial Canary in the Mine and we should be worried.

I will never forget the HUGE nest I found out in the county a few years ago. They had taken over a small tree. There were so many nests in that tree that it was impossible to see where the tree started and the nests began they had become one. I didn't have my camera with me that day. Too bad because by the time I got back out there to take a picture a person had bought the property that the tree grew on and had cleaned out all the nests. It was the first time I had seen them nesting "in the wild" so to speak and such a large colony.

Grizz………… said...

Down with the House Sparrow? Naa-a-a-h. I like them—admire them, even. Starlings, grackles, and a couple of others, imports and natives, maybe. But not the house sparrow.

Incidentally, here along the river, house sparrows are pretty uncommon, even with all the feeders and free eats. I seldom see more than a handful before the latter weeks of February—and then only in acceptable numbers.

Nope, count me on their side.

Kathi said...

Count one emphatic NO! vote from me. I am totally anti-House Sparrow. When I did my dawn-to-dusk birding day on Jan. 1, I didn't see any, and that was with deliberately driving thru 3 MickeyD's looking for them.

As a dedicated monitor of cavity-nesting birds, I had a fairly casual attitude towards HOSP until the year one male targeted my bluebird box. Despite other available nesting sites, he destroyed 3 bluebird eggs from their second nest and two more from their third attempt. The BB couple then gave up and left me. The HOSP didn't even use the nest box to raise a brood of his own. Such a waste!

That's when I crossed over to the dark side and began trapping the little brutes and saving them for RAPTOR, Inc., to feed to their hawks and falcons.

Last year, I noticed a Purple Martin gourd rocking violently. When I checked it, a HOSP flew out, and I found a male martin who had been trapped there. Had I not been home and observant, I am certain the sparrow would have killed him.

I took the PUMA out gently and inspected him. He was fine, and not at all afraid of me. I released him, and he went on to attract a mate and raise a family in that same gourd.

Call it prejudice if you like, but I am in favor of bluebirds and purple martins and opposed to house sparrows. I don't bemoan their decline one bit.

Now, if only starlings would suffer the same fate...


Anonymous said...

All species are, at some point, intruders somewhere. That should not be a detractor. As for species declining, I find it worrisome in that there is an element that is making the environment to longer hospitable. Could this be our canary in the coal mine? Sooner or later one of the species will be.

Dawn Fine said...

Ok ..we now know why the House Sparrow populations are declining..
Kat Doc is feeding them to the Raptors...Tee hee...

Julie Zickefoose said...

Nice post. Caitlin Kight wrote a very nice piece for the upcoming issue of Bird Watchers Digest on just this thing. I'm afraid I side with Kathi on this one--I have a hard time feeling too sorry that they're declining in the US--I've pulled too many bluebird corpses out from under their nests to weep for HOSP. The larger question, of course, is the major concern--why are they declining? Is the most widely distributed bird species in the world taking a downturn for some insidious reason we should be paying attention to?

Anonymous said...

Just home form a week in Florida, I filled my feeders this morning and within 30 minutes I had an estimated 60 of the little buggers scarfing down my sunflower seeds.
I have a resident Sharpie, and he does his best, but he can't keep up.
If anyone is running out of House Sparrows, they are welcome to come to East Palestine and take some of mine.

Anonymous said...

I personally wish they had never been introduced like all other non-natives. I do find my Project FeederWatch data interesting though. My HOSPs are indeed on a steep decline in my yard which I find enjoyable since I get a lot of other interesting birds that are easier to see, but I also find this disturbing. My average number of HOSPs at my feeders for the last ten years have been: 25.1, 32.9, 33.5, 23.0, 23.9, 13.1, 9.4, 9.6, 9.2, and so far this winter 2.4.

Anonymous said...

I am curious about their decline and the reasons behind it but I must say I am not sorry to have fewer house sparrows in my area (nor are my song birds).

Anonymous said...

Of all of the non-native species in Ohio, European humans have certainly done the most damage. Since they haven't kicked me out yet, I can't be too angry at these little birds. ;)

Ohio History Central has this to say regarding sparrow decline:
"Since the mid-1960s, house sparrow populations have declined because of farming practices and severe winters. Another cause of their decline is the aggressive behavior of another introduced species, the House Finch."

mw43230 said...

I didn't know I was supposed to dislike them. They have been my friends since I was little. They found one of my carriage lights and were living it in. I thought this was the year to evict them before the eggs come but I wanted to put up an alternate house. I guess I can put just about anything up and they will take to it.

ladyghost said...

another website says the first sparrows where released in Ohio, this post says New York???????????

Jim McCormac said...

One question mark will do, ladyghost :-)

From the Birds of North America monograph on house sparrow:

"Successful North American introduction involved 100 birds purchased by Mr. Nicolas Pike for $200 from England released in Brooklyn, NY, in fall 1851 and spring 1852 (Barrows 1889)."