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Sparrows that Open Doors

By Melinda S. LaBranche

Maligned by many bird watchers, House Sparrows provide urban residents with a chance to learn about birds and science

Imagine your life without House Sparrows. Numerous North Americans would like nothing better than to replace this invasive species with the bluebirds whose cavities they steal and the other songbirds they compete with at feeders. Now imagine living in an urban center where cement and asphalt dominate—what birds would you interact with if you didn’t occasionally watch a Rock Pigeon, European Starling, or House Sparrow?

House Sparrows are perfect subjects for connecting urban audiences with their surroundings. If PigeonWatch is any indicator, encouraging urban residents to observe their much-maligned neighborhood sparrows can open doors to the world of birds, birding, and science. Consider some cool facts about House Sparrows and the people who observe them.

“Clever” might be a House Sparrow’s middle name. A story from Australia demonstrates the species’ problem-solving abilities. A fast-food restaurant, located inside an enclosed courtyard, could only be accessed through several doors. One set of doors opened automatically when an “electric eye” was triggered, and the local House Sparrows employed two techniques to gain access. Some birds hovered in front of the electric eye until the doors opened. Other birds, mostly females, sat atop the electric eye and leaned over until they tripped the sensor.

Anyone who takes a moment to watch sparrows may notice other intriguing behaviors. Observers can look for behavioral differences between males and females. Males may chase away females or young birds from a food source. In addition, sparrows have dominance hierarchies (pecking orders). Males with large black bibs are usually dominant over those with smaller bibs, possibly because bib size indicates age, maturity, or condition.

By noticing simple distinctions among urban species, people new to birds can learn important lessons about variation among species. For example, to move on the ground, House Sparrows hop, starlings walk, and pigeons waddle while bobbing their heads. Seasonal plumage changes in sparrows are minimal but starlings undergo striking transformations—their spots wear off during winter and their bill color changes, resulting in a shiny black bird with a bright yellow beak when the breeding season rolls around.

House Sparrows are the smallest of the typically urban birds. It isn’t uncommon for people to assume that sparrows grow up into pigeons or some other bird. At the end of their first year of studying birds, some students in Audubon New York’s “For the Birds!” program in East Harlem, New York, explained that learning that House Sparrows aren’t baby pigeons was among their most significant lessons.

For better or worse, House Sparrows are here. We can make the most of them as subjects to engage urban audiences in the world of birds.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of BirdScope.

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