How Should U.S. Birders Feel About the Decline of House Sparrows?

About a week ago, I encountered this startling tweet from @lee00barber.

I was, frankly, shocked. Not by that statistic — a 60% decline! — but by the display of empathy for the lowly House Sparrow.

A bit of digging explains this. Barber is a UK birder. Over there, House Sparrows are native birds, on the right side of local ecology. Sentiments for the bird follow.

Over here, in the U.S., as any birder knows, House Sparrows are invasive. They were introduced in the U.S. in the mid-1850s. Within fifty years, the bird owned the country.

Many U.S. birders consider House Sparrows “junk” birds. They’re ultra-common, hardly worth counting. They’re drab, a combination of brown and gray and black; even their cleanest portions appear dusty. They forage in dirty corners of city streets, the better to find whatever crumbs us favored “natives” have neglected. Worst, the bird wreaks havoc on our native birds. Here is Peyton Marshal, in the New York Times.

Ever since my mother joined the North American Bluebird Society, or NABS, she’s had it out for the English house sparrow — a bird that, when it isn’t devouring butterflies and yellow flowers, is pecking out the brains of bluebird mothers, dumping their lifeless bodies in the grass and then throwing their children out to die.

These are old sentiments. In “Dirty Birds, Filthy Immigrants, and the English Sparrow War,” Sociologists Gary Alan Fine and Lazaros Christoforides document how ornithologists and others of the late-19th century used anti-immigrant rhetoric to turn public attention against House Sparrows.

Here in Denver, W.H. Bergtold, one of our city’s first ornithologists, celebrated the decline of House Sparrows in the early-1900s. Cars, having replaced horses, meant city streets lacked food for the bird (horse droppings). One can almost sense a sly smirk on Bergtold’s face when he concludes that cars have also made

“the species’s street life so hazardous and fatal as to drive it largely out of the business areas.”

More cars not only meant less food on city streets for sparrows. It meant more sparrows caught in cars’ metal or bouncing off them, stunned then dead.

All this is why Barber’s tweet caught me by surprise. One can scarcely imagine a U.S. birder telling us to celebrate a House Sparrow in our yard.

But then. Then we realized that U.S. House Sparrows are on the decline too. Birds of North America a decrease of about 2.6% per year since the late 1960s. In April of this year, Colorado birders discussed this informally, with many of us noting that we found fewer and fewer House Sparrows on our outings. (See this thread & also this thread.)

In my own suburban yard, I haven’t recorded a House Sparrow since December 2017. There were, regularly, two around when I moved in. They may have previously nested in a box in the yard that the former-home owner placed on a honeylocust. But when I saw the birds take an interest in that box, I opened the door of it and left it open. It’s now home to a jumping spider and a mass of earwigs. (Some of those earwigs are alive, living in the damp space between the box’s back wall and roof. Many, too, have fed the jumping spider. It’s an odd, easy life for the latter.)

Why the decline? Birds of North America lists changes in farming practices. Changes in efficiency — fewer spilled seeds, fewer weeds — leave less food behind. Changes in crop spraying and pesticides does too. Whether this would explain declines in urban and suburban birds — and if these populations are declining indeed — is unclear.

And this brings me to the question central to this entry: how should U.S. birders feel about the decline of House Sparrows? The insta-response is to celebrate. Here is an unwanted bird finally ceding back some of its territory.

If it were as simple as native birds and us winning together, us using “sparrow-proof” boxes and feeders, establishing native landscapes unappealing to House Sparrows, and those native birds moving back in, I might share this response. But as House Sparrows decline, they often leave empty grounds. Bird numbers are on the decline across the country, across habitats. What fills their niche? Perhaps only what we leave behind: the bits of paper they might have built into their nests and scraps of food.

Consider, for instance, a fellow traveler of House Sparrows, the native House Finch. The birds use similar nesting boxes. As Bergtold documented the early-20th century decline of House Sparrows, he rejoiced

In previous years the writer spent a good deal of his spare time, when at home, in protecting his House Finches from the ravages of the English Sparrow, but it has not been at all necessary during the past three years. This relief from sparrow depredations, it would seem, has not been due to increased protection, but rather to the absence of sparrows; the fact is there have been fewer sparrows to harass the finches.

No such good fortune today. In the U.S., House Finches have experienced a decline similar to that of House Sparrows, of about 3.3% annually.

Could it be that, one day, U.S. birders will be like their European counterparts, rooting for a yard sighting of House Sparrows?

Perhaps the bird one day becomes uncommon, even rare. After all, birders love their rare non-native species. Even those established in one region may be breathlessly reported and obsessively chased in areas where they’re not yet established. (Looking at you, Eurasian Collared-Dove.)

But ought we embrace the House Sparrow sooner than that, realizing that their decline is sign of a wounded environment? Might we rejoice, then, at one feeding alongside our invited visitors? Might we celebrate the bird when it succeeds, nestlings raised to adults, as a symbol of the natural world not yet done in?

We might, at least, need to learn to finally accept the bird. For every hard won environmental victory, particularly those in developed habitats, might benefit this bird first, as robust and still common as it is.


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