According to scientists the most abundant bird on our continent is also one of the most successful of the bird species that have been introduced in North America. Adaptability is the key to this bird’s success. Scientists agree that the house sparrow fits this description. It is, indeed, one of the most successful introduced species in the Americas. The key to its success lies in its ability to adapt. It has had enormous success due to its adaptability to living with humans and cultivation.
House sparrows from England were released in New York City in 1851. By 1900 they had spread to the Rocky Mountains. In the early 1870s house sparrows were introduced in San Francisco and Salt Lake City. This action helped with the bird’s spread westward. Thus, they became abundant everywhere in North America except for Alaska and the tundra of Northern Canada, according to Cornell Ornithological Lab.
The lack of abundance in our northern most latitudes has to do with the fact they are not found in dense forests or on the tundra. In addition, they nest and feed where there is human habitation. They are found in urban, suburban and rural settings where they nest in almost every conceivable place, including street lamps, house lamps, eaves, in street signs, in the walls of buildings and in nest boxes. These are all preferred over natural nesting cavities in trees.
House sparrows will eat almost anything, including human food scraps. They especially love grains and seeds such as corn, oats and wheat. They also enjoy wild seeds such as those produced by crabgrass and other grasses. In summer, when they have young in the nest, they forage for insects which they feed to their babies. House sparrows love feeders, especially those that serve up sunflower seeds, millet and corn.
The house sparrow is about the size of a dark-eyed junco, but has a much stockier build. In general, the male’s plumage is a color combination of rufous, black and gray. It has a black bill, bib, face and throat, but its nape is rufous in color and its crown, belly and flanks are gray. The female wears a more nondescript plumage being mottled tan and brown above and buffy gray below. Her face and head are a plain tannish gray with a light eye stripe.
House sparrows are considered by many to be pests. In addition, they are extremely aggressive. As such, they compete with other species like bluebirds and tree swallows for nesting places and in so doing will often evict them from nest holes. However, there is at least one house sparrow positive in my mind and it is that according to the Cornell Lab, “due to its abundance, ease to raise and general lack of fear towards humans, the house sparrow has proved to be an excellent model organism for many avian biological studies. To date, there have been almost 5,000 scientific papers published with the house sparrow as the study species.”
As spring comes into its own over the next few months you will hear birds singing their hearts out as they establish their territories. Listen for what I think of as just plain cheeping. A noisy and fairly continuous cheep, cheep, cheep signifies the presence of a house sparrow. Its song is not exotic or melodic, but it is easily recognized. You will hear them in the bushes or trees in your yard, especially if you have a feeder or places for them to nest.
House sparrow behavior is interesting to watch. Male house sparrows with the larger dark bibs are older and dominant over males with less black on their bibs. There are fewer fights between male house sparrows because their plumage carries the message of dominance. Have you ever observed this behavior? Watch for it and other interesting house sparrow behavior such as taking dust baths and their defense of the spot they choose to “bathe” in and the various types of nesting spaces they choose. How many different nesting places do you see on your travels? Look for the ways in which the house sparrow has adapted to living with us. It is a success story unrivaled by other introduced species to North America.