An Un­pop­u­lar Bird

House spar­rows are de­clin­ing in num­bers; not every­one is sad to see th­ese brainy birds go

Canadian Wildlife - - OUTDOORS - By David Bird

On a re­cent trip to Mon­treal, I found my­self star­ing into the dark beady eyes of a male house spar­row. It is a sight that is be­com­ing rarer and rarer with time. Orig­i­nally known as the English spar­row but more closely re­lated to the weaver finch fam­ily than the true spar­rows, the first house spar­rows (Passer do­mes­ti­cus) were in­tro­duced into Brook­lyn, New York, in 1851 to con­trol the inch worm, which was dev­as­tat­ing trees, and/or to make avail­able their pretty song to home­sick Euro­peans. By 1900, they had spread to the Rocky Moun­tains and soon were com­mon all over the con­ti­nent save for Alaska and far north­ern Canada.

But in the 1960s and ’70s, their num­bers be­gan to de­cline. From 1966 to 2015, their North Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion de­creased by over 3.5 per cent an­nu­ally, con­sti­tut­ing a to­tal de­cline of 84 per cent dur­ing that pe­riod. They are not quite at the “en­dan­gered species” level though; a re­cent es­ti­mate has their world pop­u­la­tion at about 540 mil­lion. Of those birds, 13 per cent live in the U.S. and 2 per cent in Canada. While no one sin­gle rea­son for the de­cline has yet been pin­pointed, some at­tribute it to the mod­ern­iza­tion of farms, com­pe­ti­tion from house finches in ur­ban habi­tats and in­creased pre­da­tion by free-rang­ing cats.

Not every­one is weep­ing about it though. House spar­rows have a well-de­served rep­u­ta­tion for at­tack­ing and even killing other hole-nest­ing song­birds to take over their nests. Just ask any pur­ple martin land­lord or blue­bird nest-box trail man­ager about that! I will never for­get hav­ing to take down my mod­est alu­minum pur­ple martin house be­cause the lo­cal gang of house spar­rows had ba­si­cally turned it into a slum. How­ever, once I stopped be­ing a “rap­tor bigot” — ba­si­cally cat­e­go­riz­ing every bird un­der “hawks” or “hawk food” — some­time in the mid-’80s, I be­gan ap­pre­ci­at­ing all feathered crea­tures, in­clud­ing the house spar­row. They are not stupid birds! Their brain ac­counts for 4.3 per cent of their body weight, con­sid­er­ably more than in other birds. They are cun­ning enough to trig­ger photo-elec­tric doors in air­port ter­mi­nals to al­low ac­cess to in­door restau­rants, and re­cently in Mex­ico, th­ese street-smart birds learned to in­cor­po­rate nico­tine-sat­u­rated cig­a­rette fil­ter fi­bres into their nests to suc­cess­fully dis­suade par­a­sites and in­sects.

Okay, okay, if I haven’t con­vinced you one whit to let them en­joy your prop­erty, you can dis­cour­age them from your feed­ers by of­fer­ing the right foods. Cracked corn, wheat, oats, mil­let and most mixed seed of­fer­ings are a def­i­nite no-no. Your best food of­fer­ings are saf­flower seeds, ny­jer (or thistle­seed), suet, peanuts and mixed nuts. For sun­flower seeds, use a feeder de­sign that sways in the wind, as they get spooked by a mov­ing feeder. House spar­rows like to feed on the ground or on plat­form feed­ers, so keep spilled seed to a min­i­mum. Perches shorter than half an inch also help pre­vent house spar­rows from perch­ing on feed­ers.

Get rid of any dusty, grav­elly ar­eas where house spar­rows like to dust-bathe. Elim­i­nate any po­ten­tial nest­ing cav­i­ties or wall ivy, and keep garage and shed doors closed when not in use. Fi­nally, ha­rass­ing spar­rows in their roost­ing spots in the evening just af­ter they perch sleep for the night may also force them to seek safer lo­ca­tions else­where.

Al­ter­na­tively, you can wait un­til they be­come ex­tinct in North Amer­ica.

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