This is a series of articles about the birds that visit my backyard feeders and that are seen around my yard this winter. Please share any photographs or observations from your feeders with us on the Friends website (www.friendsebec.com) or by emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org. As a Friends member you can also post your photographs directly to the website! Also consider joining the Friends on the weekend of February 17-20 and participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count (http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc/). Details and a Field Guide to the common birds likely to be found in a backyard are on the Friends website.
The House sparrow, or English sparrow, is one of our most common birds in residential areas, often making its nest in holes in and around homes. We have a pair in our yard that has nested in a hole beneath the eaves and in an old bird house too. The House sparrow is a bird of towns and neighborhoods and cities and farms but not woods or fields or meadows. Wherever people have settled, the House sparrow has followed. Even its scientific species name "domesticus" indicates its strong association with people. "domesticus" is Latin for "belonging to the house".
The House sparrow occurs in small noisy flocks, constantly chirping as they perch in the open or quickly duck for cover into a shrub at the first sign of danger. The males are sharp looking birds, with a brown back, brown head, gray cap and black "bib" from the beak to the center of the chest. The females are a drab, grayish brown rather indistinct bird but usually occur with males, making identification a bit easier.
I can't really put my finger on why, but I like House sparrows even though I know they compete for cavity space with other birds like nuthatches and woodpeckers and chickadees. Maybe it's familiarity, or maybe it's their amazing history in the United States. House sparrows were not part of our fauna before 1852 when they were first introduced from Europe. Since then, these highly successful little birds have spread across nearly all of North and Central America, throughout the Caribbean and in a large part of South America too. The story of their introduction is fascinating and shows what can happen when we move living things around the globe to places they don't naturally occur.
My sentiments about the House sparrow aside, in the decades after its introduction there was widespread disdain for the bird. As I often do, I like to look through older ornithological literature to get a historical perspective on the birds I am writing about or conducting field surveys for. Since I knew the House sparrow was introduced into the United States in the 1850's I pulled out one of my oldest books on New Jersey Birds to see what was written about the House sparrow more than 100 years ago. My 1896 copy of the Birds of New Jersey by Charles A. Shriner, the State Fish and Game Protector for the Fish and Game Commission of the State of New Jersey is fragile and brown and fascinating. There is a very long entry on the House sparrow, much of it focused on how to trap and kill them. The entry lists four other common names for the House sparrow; English sparrow, owing to its European roots, and Gamin, Tramp, Hoodlum. I knew what tramp and hoodlum meant, but Gamin was new to me. A Gamin is a "street urchin" or a "waif", and when combined with Tramp and Hoodlum should portray a less than positive feeling for the bird. The entry is fascinating both for its historical perspective and the way it describes the House sparrow. It is a little long (and I've only provided part of it) but worth the read:
"The English sparrow was introduced into the United States in 1852 by the Brooklyn Institute, eight pairs being imported. These did not thrive and members of the Institute and others subscribed to a fund of $200 for the acquirement of more. The second lot arrived in the latter part of the year and these fifty were let loose at the Narrows in New York harbor; the rest were placed in the tower of the chapel at Greenwood Cemetery. They were released in the spring of 1853 and did well. From that time to the year 1881 English sparrows were imported direct from Europe to various states, the last consignment being to Iowa city, Iowa, in 1881. Since that time the birds have spread themselves over nearly the whole of the United States and Canada, and there is little doubt that in a few years they will have possession of the whole country.
"The object of the introduction of the English sparrow was the destruction of insect pests. As destroyers of insects they have proven a lamentable failure in this country. All reports concerning them alike: to-wit, they do very little good and an immense amount of harm. In a number of states bounties have been offered for their destruction, but as there was no concerted action all over the country the diminution in numbers was scarcely perceptible. The birds destroy fruit and grain, both in blossom and in the more or less advanced state, and they annoy and drive away large numbers of beneficial birds. The few insects they destroy are but trifle in the scale when the large number of insectivorous birds driven away by them is considered."
House sparrows can be found in many of our parks and neighborhoods. Use the Friends Online Guide to East Brunswick Parks to find places to explore. The Guide is available at: http://www.friendsebec.com/ebparks.htm. For more information about House sparrows visit the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website at http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/House_Sparrow/id/ac