Spotted on the Hill

The House Sparrow

Photo by Peter Vankevich

With a twinge of sadness, this is my last species for Spotted on the Hill. For my coda, next month I will review the bird life on Capitol Hill that I have observed since I began this column for the Hill Rag in March of 2006.

Of all the birds that may be recognized on Capitol Hill, the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is certainly one of them These hardy birds arrived in North America in the early 1850s when a homesick Brit expat named Nicolas Pike released about 100 of them in Brooklyn, NY. Later followed by more releases in other regions, they found the North American landscape appealing and to the detriment of native birds, wasted no time in adapting and spreading out throughout the continent. Early expansion in ranges throughout North America in the early years of the 20th century included areas along railroads that carried grain from the farmlands to cities. Today House Sparrows are the most widely distributed birds in the world, but always appearing close to human habitats.

The male is easily identified by its black bib, whitish cheeks, single white wing bar and Rufus-colored neck. During breeding season, the plumage is quite crisp and in winter more subtle. The females are plain appearing with a tan color, pale eye line, white wing bar and a brownish streaked back. They have a cheerful song consisting of a series of cheeps and also use a single similar sounding call note throughout the year.

A major reason that the House Sparrow is so widely distributed is that, as its name implies, it thrives in human modified habitats that provide both food and shelter including both cities and farmlands. This fact is no surprise to establishments on Pennsylvania Ave, as they will nest in and on the smallest of nooks and crannies of buildings. They will also nest in tree cavities. These birds are highly social and will flock together during the day and at night roost communally sometimes in great numbers in trees and on building ledges. They can often be seen both dust and water bathing as the habitat dictates. They are opportunistic mostly ground feeders and will eat not only seeds and insects and but also discarded human foods such as French fries.

The House Sparrow is an invasive species and one of the major criticisms of the species is that it has had a negative impact on the native song bird populations especially cavity nesters that live within the same area. House Sparrows are highly aggressive in selecting and defending nest sites intended for other species including nest boxes and gourds intended for the use of Purple Martins. Attempts to discourage their nesting include designing nesting boxes that will allow use by native birds, but not the House Sparrow.

In spite of their great numbers, House Sparrows appear to be in decline in some areas of the world. Historically, I found reports that there were also declines in the early part of the 20th century in cities such as Denver, Colorado and Lakewood, Ohio. The reason cited was that cars were replacing horses and the elimination of horse droppings removed an important food source. A study released this year on House Sparrows in the UK, where their populations have been in decline in many areas, speculated that excessive noise in urban areas could be responsible for high mortality rate for young birds. The researchers said that the noise could prevent the parent birds from hearing the hunger calls from their dependent offspring.


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