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Lessons from the Rattus rattus of the Bird World

by Miyoko Chu
Illustration by John Schmitt

BirdScope takes a look at the controversial House Sparrow

In 1964, ornithologist Joe Marshall wrote of the House Sparrow, “This loud and messy bird shares with two other species, Rattus rattus and Homo sapiens, traits which make the three of them a blight upon the earth: omnivorous food habits, the ability to colonize every corner of the world, and an inordinate capacity to procreate—in geometric progression.” Marshall conceded that House Sparrows do have “estimable qualities, particularly of intellect.” For example, he said, they “quickly learn to associate an opening door with the impending volley of a slingshot.”

Because BirdScope has received many inquiries about House Sparrows, we have decided to present a special forum in this issue. Lab staff, citizen-science participants, and British and American scientists share their views about this tenacious species, including what we should do about them and why we should pay attention.

The trouble with House Sparrows in North America began in the 1850s when they were sought as the solution to eradicating insect pests such as cankerworms and dropworms, and to alleviate the homesickness of European immigrants who longed for familiar birds. They were first successfully released in Brooklyn, New York, in 1853, then were independently introduced to some 100 other cities in subsequent years. By 1886, they had spread across one million square miles of the United States. By 1905, they had settled nearly the entire country and had become firmly established as urban nuisances and agricultural pests themselves.

Few birds rile up bird lovers as much as House Sparrows. They compete with native songbirds for food and nest sites and put us in the uncomfortable position of vilifying them because they don’t belong where humans put them in the first place. Letters from our citizen-science participants show that some nest-box monitors have no qualms about dispatching House Sparrows that kill or displace native birds, whereas others find it difficult to harm any bird, even an invasive species. “The issue of how to deal with House Sparrows is filled with controversy and emotion,” says Tina Phillips, project leader of The Birdhouse Network. “What’s important is for people to be educated about the consequences of allowing House Sparrows to breed in nest boxes. They need to make informed personal choices about what to do.”

Through a different lens, University of Kentucky biologist David Westneat offers a fascinating glimpse of House Sparrows as subjects of scientific study. Melinda LaBranche, project leader of the Lab’s Urban Bird Studies, explains how urban residents can observe intriguing behaviors among House Sparrows in cities, and how House Sparrows can play an important role in connecting children with nature.

Although House Sparrows are among the most familiar birds and among the best-studied in the laboratory, birders and population biologists alike have paid them little heed until recently. In Britain, where House Sparrows are native, the species is declining. Ornithologists Humphrey Crick and Mike Toms of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) lament the years of data lost because monitoring programs ignored House Sparrows in the past (see page 14). The BTO has now raised more than £66,000 ($115,000) in donations to investigate why House Sparrows are declining in Britain.

Meanwhile, scientists in the United States know little about what regulates House Sparrow numbers in urban and rural areas or about the impact of House Sparrows on native songbird populations. Data from Project FeederWatch show declines in the numbers of House Sparrows at feeders since 1989. Urban Bird Studies is collecting data on House Sparrows and other urban birds, and The Birdhouse Network is taking a look at House Sparrows as nest-box competitors. Birders who encounter House Sparrows can submit their counts to eBird, an online checklist program maintained by the Lab and Audubon. These data will become part of a long-term permanent record that scientists and educators can use in future years to understand population trends of invasive species and their impact on native birds.

Ken Rosenberg, the Lab’s director of Conservation Science and a renowned birder, sometimes encounters local birders who are surprised to find him counting starlings and House Sparrows for eBird, along with native birds. “I explain that it’s important to monitor nonnative species,” Rosenberg says. “You never know when these numbers may be critical for documenting effects on native birds.”

We may not like House Sparrows, or want them, but here they are. As we deal with them, we can take a close look and learn what they have to tell us.

Miyoko Chu, Editor

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

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