2018-04-26 / Nature

The Ubiquitous Backyard Sparrows

By Charles Avenengo

“Passer domesticus has decided to take over the world in which it seems so unwelcome.” – Joseph Kastner, “A World of Watchers”

Everybody has them, sparrows that is. On Aquidneck Island, they roost in practically every hedgerow and, frequently, somewhere in the cavity of the house itself.

While the island has a number of native sparrow species, the most common, by far, is the house sparrow, which was an introduced species. Their fortunes revolve around being in close proximity to humans. With the Latin name of Passer domesticus, they originally spread from the Middle East, and because of their worldwide proliferation, they have become the most widespread wild bird on the planet.

They were brought from Europe to Brooklyn, New York in 1853 because of their reputation for being voracious eaters of insects. The hope was that they would end a plague of cankerworms and spanworms that were gobbling the leaves of native trees. City governments across the country invested in the house sparrows as the saviors to the insect pestilence.

Song sparrow and chipping sparrow. 
(Photos by Bob Weaver) Song sparrow and chipping sparrow. (Photos by Bob Weaver) Because they are also prolific breeders, producing up to four clutches of offspring annually, within decades, house sparrows spread across most of the continent. While they consumed the insect pests, it was soon revealed that they were largely vegetarian, loving seeds and in particular, thriving on the undigested grains found in horse droppings.

The house sparrows’ expansion westward was aided by freight trains. Upon discovering railroad cars full of grain, the sparrows would happily munch away until chased off by railroad workers.

As they expanded their range in North America, house sparrows became the block bullies. Preferring to nest in cavities, both natural and man-made, they frequently drove out other native cavity dwellers like Eastern bluebirds and purple martins.

By the late 1800s, “The Great Sparrow War” erupted, with sides drawn up both in defense of and against the recent arrivals. Some loved them, but most hated them. Massive eradication efforts commenced, while defenders insisted that they were a great advantage to gardeners.

One proponent against the sparrows, then Harvard student and future President Theodore Roosevelt, was called a liar for his report regarding the sparrows’ aggressive behavior towards native birds. His accusers were older ornithologists who called his report “sophomoric,” which at the time was his actual class level at Harvard.

Boston’s mayor was besieged by both sides. Pressured by the sparrows’ defenders, he ordered the park employees to shoot birds called shrikes, which were feasting on sparrows in Boston Common. However, he later reversed course and instructed the park workers to destroy the sparrows’ nests. More than 4,000 nests were destroyed.

The feud continued for decades, with a number of eradication schemes that included offering bounties, poisoning and trapping. Additionally, entrepreneurs sold the sparrows as delicacies for pot pies, purportedly claiming they tasted better than quail.

Despite the massive efforts at eradication, nothing worked. Ultimately, it was the invention of the automobile that stemmed the tide. With cars taking over from horses, the easy pickings of the seeds in the horse droppings vanished, and the sparrow population stabilized.

The sparrow was not out of the woods, however. In the 1950s, the federal government ordered pet stores in New York to release a species of caged birds that had been illegally imported from the west on Long Island. These were called house finches. More colorful and with a livelier song than the house sparrow’s single chip notes, the house finches proved to be more aggressive, and soon the two species were engaged in turf wars.

But the house finches never quite pushed the sparrow completely out. On Aquidneck Island, the two species currently co-exist in an uneasy harmony, with flocks that roost next to each other.

The International Migratory Bird Act of 1918 protected hundreds of species of migratory birds throughout the Americas, from Canada to Argentina. The house sparrow, however, was omitted because they are not a native species, and thus were not offered the same protection.

Which is why, when the aproned chefs of a renowned Italian restaurant in New York are spotted running around the neighborhood with nets, chasing the legally unprotected house sparrow for the evening meal, as in the popular movie, “Fried Green Tomatoes,” the secret is perhaps in the recipe.

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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