As a rule, it’s not hard to find a house sparrow in the U.S. It seems I’ve seen them on nearly every block of every city, as well as in most suburbs and agricultural areas. I’ve also seen them inside airports, grocery stores, Kmarts (when they used to exist), and several Walmarts.
The first time I really noticed them, as a species, was from the porch of my mother-in-law’s farmhouse in Massachusetts, watching them build a nest in her eaves.
House sparrows can be a little more elusive in Key West than other places.The trees in the Overseas Market parking lot used to be a reliable spot to see them, but their numbers have dropped in recent years. With all the recent renovation, and the leafy landscaping trees being replaced with palms, I thought maybe they had ceded this part of their range.
I wasn’t thinking about house sparrows at all when I drove through the parking lot of the Walgreens on North Roosevelt the first time, aiming for The Home Depot. I was thinking about the pair of white-crowned pigeons I’d seen mating on a wire over the road, back near Taco Bell. The wire swayed a bit in the wind while they were doing it, and it was one of the more impressive feats of balance and determination I’ve seen. I just hoped they decided to build a nest somewhere with a little less car exhaust.
I didn’t think about house sparrows until I drove through the Walgreens parking lot a second time, this time with the windows open to release the heat from the car. That’s when I heard it, the telltale twitter.
I saw the bird fly up from the ground and toward the building, a flash of gray, brown and white. So I parked and grabbed the binoculars I keep on the floor behind the passenger seat and was prepared to wait patiently. But I didn’t have to — because I know how to read.
House sparrows apparently have a thing for sans serif fonts. They had completely eschewed the flowing script of the Walgreens logo. But on the middle bar of the letter E in “OPEN 24 HOURS,” displayed in a thick, Helvetica-type font, someone had tried to build a nest. It had apparently failed, possibly because the egg rolled off the right-hand edge. All that remained was a broken weave of grass and twigs. (If it had been a serifed font, or a lowercase e, the results might have been different.) But inside the inner triangle of the 4 in 24, and the lobe in the R in HOURS, there were nests.
There were also nests in the lobes of the P and R of PHARMACY and the R of LIQUORS, as well as another nest in the lower cup of the letter S at the end. And they were all going like gangbusters – needy fledglings being taken care of by harried parents.
I was strangely elated to see them back, even though I, like most birders, have a relationship to them as a species that ranges from the conflicted to the ambivalent.
House sparrows used to be called English sparrows and, as their name indicates, are an Old World species. Our native sparrows, a.k.a. New World sparrows, are in a separate family, but called sparrows because the new European immigrants in the 1600s and 1700s just named the new species they were seeing after the birds they resembled back home.
It was a practical move, a way to begin to understand the species around them, but it was also a way of reorganizing things in a way that pleased European-derived sensibilities.
It was that urge to European-ize the continent that led, I believe, to a trend in the mid-1800s, of importing house sparrows. The first eight pairs were brought from England and released in Brooklyn in 1851. They were never really seen again, so it was decided “they did not thrive.” Although releasing birds onto a new continent and not seeing them again does not seem like proof that they did not thrive.
In 1852, members of the Brooklyn Institute collected $200 to purchase about 100 house sparrows from Liverpool, England that were shipped to the United States aboard the steamship Europa.
Fifty of those birds were released as the ship came into port. The rest were housed in a tower of the chapel at the Greenwood Cemetery. When those birds were seen to be doing poorly midwinter, they were brought into someone’s house until spring, then released in the cemetery with a man hired to watch over them. Those birds thrived and multiplied.
In the coming years other batches were released in Boston, Quebec, Galveston, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City and San Francisco, as well as less populated places, like Portland, Maine and Peace Dale, Rhode Island. They were generally released in flocks of 20 to 200 birds, though in many cases the exact number wasn’t recorded. The peak was in 1867, when 1,000 house sparrows were released in Philadelphia.
There are also records of smaller groups being released in places such as Alabama, Wisconsin and Georgia, though it is unclear if those birds were imported directly from Europe, or if they were captured in American cities where they were thriving, and redistributed.
What is sure is that the Europeans brought them in, though the rationalizations I’ve read for doing so all seem somewhat vague. It’s believed that part of the idea was that house sparrows eat insects, and thus were a sanitizing force. It’s also thought they were a balm for homesickness, a familiar creature for immigrants from France, Germany and England in an unfamiliar land. No doubt it also had something to do with the belief that things from Europe were somehow better.
By the early 20th century, they were considered an agricultural pest and great efforts were made to eradicate them, but obviously failed. They were also thought to be crowding out native species.
The thinking on that has shifted in recent years. Or at least agricultural techniques have changed enough that house sparrows are no longer considered the pests they once were.
And the notion of them crowding out native species has gotten a little more nuanced. Like rock pigeons and free roaming chickens, they don’t thrive in wild habitats, but rather in habitats greatly altered by humans. They don’t drive out the other species, they just occupy habitats that are no longer suitable to the native species.
So yeah, I was happy to see them doing so well at the Walgreens the other day. Sort of.