Wednesday, June 25, 2008

English Sparrows Seen As A Nuisance

I seldom see English (house) sparrows around our place anymore. Nor or they as visible around downtown North Augusta or shopping centers as I remember them not too many years ago.

Our most familiar bird alien is the English sparrow. After its introduction in the 1850s in New England, it took less than fifty years for it to "capture" the country, establishing itself in California and other western states by the 1890s.

Perhaps more than any other feathered creature, this sparrow takes advantage of man's progress. Its rapid spread across the country was not only by its own wings but it has been attributed to its bumming a ride in cattle railroad cars loaded with grain from which it fed en route to the west coast. Free ride, free food, free shelter. Why not go for it? And it did!

Sparrows are mainly seed eaters and rural America was just their thing. When these brown-backed birds first arrived in the States in the 1850s no gas guzzling machines existed. All local transportation was by wagon, buggy, carriage or cart, all driven by grain-eating horses. Much grain was dropped around these animals and sparrows followed wherever the animals went.

Some people say the house sparrow is a pest and call it a tramp, a hoodlum and a gamin . . . a sort of street urchin . . . for years ago it was a city dweller.

This little free loader also has a talent for multiplying and is known as the mouse of the bird world, hatching brood after brood from early spring through late fall. But now his numbers are decreasing, possibly because horses have been replaced by automobiles and his food supply is dwindling.

Our sweet-singing native sparrows are shy little birds that live quiet lives along wood edges and in thickets and grassy fields. Until the 1850s they were the only sparrows in North America.

The house sparrow is really not a sparrow but is of the weaver family of the Old World. Early settlers called them sparrows and the name stuck. It was quite natural to call it the English sparrow since most of the birds were imported from England, though the species is widely distributed throughout the world.

This saucy, keen-witted little gamin, who thrives where other birds would starve, and who insists on driving away other cavity nesting birds such as purple martins, bluebirds, chickadees and titmice by destroying their eggs and young then usurping the house for themselves, is now considered a nuisance.

The decrease in these birds is most marked in the eastern states, especially in the cities and towns, though the sparrows are still common in rural districts around poultry and cattle farms where there is still plenty of grain fed to livestock.

Nonetheless, with all his shortcomings, the male is a good looking chap in his black and hazelnut-striped coat and chestnut, black and white head and black bib. The female looks much like the male but lacks the conspicuous markings about the head and the black bib.

Song wise the house sparrow flunks. All he can usually manage is a harsh chirping and chattering.