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A Helpful House Sparrow

The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is one of those critters that birders love to hate.  The species makes a habit of usurping the nest sites of native species, especially bluebirds, and is therefore reviled by many a birder.

Initially released on this continent in the early 1850s in New York City and parts of New England, followed by many more releases across the U.S. and Canada during subsequent decades, the Old World sparrow rapidly established outposts on New World soils.  By the 1880s, the species was well-established in many cities, and its impacts on native avifauna were becoming obvious.  The bird that had once captivated the countless Americans who aided in its rapid spread had already worn out its welcome.

When watching these birds, it’s not difficult to see why they have persisted for the past century.  Their ability to thrive in urban settings, scavenging discarded french fries and other bits of refuse, is notorious.  Anyone who has watched House Sparrows making themselves at home inside warehouse stores or building sloppy nests of dry grass in every conceivable type of lamppost can attest to their adaptability.  I have to admit that I’m ambivalent about the species.  The scientist in me dislikes the impact of the House Sparrow on native birds, but the humanist in me loves the plucky spirit of these little tank-like city-dwellers.

Yesterday I witnessed an event that made me smile.  As I was about to get out of my car, I noticed a female House Sparrow that had flown to the ground nearby with something shiny and green in her bill.  I froze in the driver’s seat, window down, and watched.  Not ten feet away, the bird lit on some reddish landscaping gravel.  At this range I could tell what the mysterious object was: not one, but two Japanese Beetles!  The unfortunate beetles were attached to each other for the purposes of mating (a position referred to by entomologists as in copulo) and had no hope of disuniting in time for either to escape!  The sparrow settled down to lunch and quickly munched most of the first beetle of the pair, while the beetle’s mate could only wriggle in vain, still attached to the little that remained of its mate.  After briefly dropping the remaining beetle into the stones, the House Sparrow deftly picked up a piece of gravel, dropped it aside, and reclaimed its prey.

Two Japanese Beetles down, millions more to go.  One introduced pest species feasting on another.  Unfortunately, the energy-rich beetle innards, recycled, no doubt, from some gardener’s prized roses, were going to help produce more House Sparrows.

Such is the way of the urban jungle.  At least now I feel a little better about my guilty admiration for Passer domesticus.

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) by J. Garg.  Used under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) by J. Garg. Distributed under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

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2 comments to A Helpful House Sparrow

  • sally

    enjoyed your house sparrow comments. It’s interesting to think what might have come into their niche in this modern industrialized world if they weren’t around? More starlings? Also an import…… which native bird would have adapted as well as the Passer domesticus to urban life?

  • Williams

    The clash of the titan invasives! There was a Japanese Beetle “situation” in Orem, UT and the state pretty much locked the area down and, through an intensive program (read: a lot of spraying), they are now, once more, absent from Utah.
    As for the sparrows, I have wondered if these guys and/or pigeons could be trained to pick up litter…especially the ubiquitous cigarette butt. Perhaps a feeder set up to issue a reward upon deposit of a specific litter item. I think the problem would be preventing them from putting everything in to get the reward.

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