Persecuted immigrant

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-115758067929903.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘English sparrows congregate to feed on seeds spilled on a driveway.’);

There is, perhaps, no other bird more familiar to us than the English or house sparrow. Like the rat, cockroach and bedbug, it is a highly adaptable animal that has infiltrated man’s civilization throughout the world. Actually the English sparrow is not a sparrow at all, but a member of the finch family.

The native home of this globe trotter is Eurasia and North Africa, and from there it spread to most of the continent of Europe, to central Siberia, and India. Eventually, it set up successful housekeeping in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and North and South America.

It was introduced into the U. S. in 1850 with the release of eight pairs into New York City by well-meaning people who thought the bird would control insects attacking trees in Central and Prospect parks. By 1910, the English sparrow had spread from coast to coast and was well on its way to becoming the most abundant bird in North America. At its peak in the early part of the 20th century, within it s favorite haunts, a bird watcher could easily spot twice as many English sparrows as all other birds combined.

The primary reason for the population explosion of this bird is that it was able to invade man’s cities and establish itself in a new ecological niche that was not occupied by many of our native species. From a high point in the 1920s, the number of English sparrows has declined where today we find their populations substantially reduced but quite stabilized.

Most bird biologists believe the leveling of the numbers was not accomplished by the forces of nature alone. The internal combustion engine and the advent of the automobile probably played an important role. With the demise of horse-pulled vehicles and the grain-laden droppings the equines routinely deposited along the streets and roads, the sparrow was deprived of one of its main sources of food.

The wholesale slaughter and the ruthless destruction of nesting sites by humans also effectively reduced the breeding stock. As a boy, I remember watching police officers shoot hundreds of the birds with shotguns in a nesting area in a downtown park in Ft. Worth, Texas. It was certainly true they had created a nuisance in the downtown area, with their droppings defacing parked cars, and sometimes the hats and clothes of pedestrians.

Much has been written about this “sparrow,” and almost all of it is of a derogatory nature. With the arrival of a large number of human immigrants about the same time as the bird, many feared the industrious and adaptable newcomers would create competition and threaten their way of life. Likewise, many feared the English sparrow would inundate the land to the detriment of the native species. When reading about English sparrows, one finds the adjectives bully, belligerent, and usurping, when, perhaps bold, fearless and resourceful would be more descriptive.

There is no question that the English sparrow can successfully compete with many native species. But, it is absurd to accuse the immigrant bird of taking over the habitats of native birds in areas where man’s spreading “civilization” has made the environment unsuitable except for the English sparrow. In areas where their habitats have not been devastated, native species almost always hold their own against the immigrant.

Like many mostly vegetarian birds. English sparrows may cause minor damage to wheat, oats and other cereal crops, but they atone for this by ingesting large quantities of crabgrass, chickweed, dandelion, ragweed and other undesirable plant seeds. When large numbers of insects are available, this sparrow will feed almost exclusively on them. Japanese beetles, aphids, or cutworms are sure to attract a large number of English sparrows. They will feed almost exclusively on them as long as the insect numbers last.

The English or house sparrow has been a victim of unwarranted prejudice in the past, and as a result, they have been saddled with a “bum rap.” It is time for us to accept them as an important part of our bird fauna and appreciate their many admirable traits.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific paper and written numerous magazine articles.

From the Sept. 6-12, 2006, issue

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