05152021 Of a Feather English sparrow

Remember me? An English sparrow, otherwise known as a house sparrow, flies in to grab a quick bite to eat in downtown Claremont as it clings to the branch of a cherry tree on Tuesday, May 11, 2021.

By Bill Chaisson

On my morning walks with the dog I have been adding resident warblers day by day for a few weeks now. A yellow-rumped warbler is in the mixed woodland next to the path as I climb the hill. There’s a chestnut-sided singing in the birch saplings at the edge of the forest, where he should be. A black-and-white haunts the more mature trees along the woods road and a black-throated green is a bit further back in the hemlocks (which it shares with blue-headed vireo). Most recently a yellowthroat has begun its witchity-witchity act at the scruffy edges of the meadow near the brook. When I take some longer walks in the acres of forest behind our house, I hope to add black-throated blue, Blackburnian, and perhaps even magnolia warblers. It really is quite varied habitat here.

There is a barn standing by the road at the foot of our driveway, but there are no animals in it right now, which is perhaps why I haven’t seen any house sparrows around. When I lived in Unity, a farm three doors down the road raised sheep, so we had plenty of pigeons and house sparrows in the neighborhood even though we were “out in the country.”

Most people associate house sparrows (Passer domesticus) purely with city streets, where they hop around almost underfoot, snatching up pieces of discarded pizza crust and soft pretzel. In fact, these imported birds have declined in numbers since the decline and disappearance of horses as working animals in our cities and with the increased industrialization of farms, which has meant a lot less spilled grain lying around.

In a November 2018 column, I described the introduction of starlings and house sparrows as part of a 19th-century campaign by Shakespeare fanatics to import all birds mentioned by the Bard in his plays. Both tend to be rather unloved because they are aggressive toward native species when it comes to sharing space at bird feeders. Also, the house sparrow is a cavity nester and therefore displaces bluebirds and tree swallows at next boxes.

More commonly P. domesticus nests in the holes it finds in buildings. They are members of the Passeridae, known as the “true sparrows,” as distinct from the “New World sparrows,” or Passerellidae. Some classifications include the weaver-finches in the Passeridae. Most of us associate the weavers with nature shows about Africa, where we see colonial nests that look like haystacks in trees.

The nests of house sparrows are not quite as massive, but they are large. They begin construction with coarse vegetation that nearly fills whatever cavity they adopt. The sparrows then build a softer space within this mess, lined with grasses, string, and paper. Where there are separate entrances to an interior space in a building, house sparrows will build their nests side by side in a colony like their weaver cousins.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Claremont, waiting for someone out on the street, when I noticed a male house sparrow courting a female. This description from allaboutbirds.org fits what I saw to a T: “When males display to a prospective mate, they fluff up their chest, hold their wings partially open, fan the tail, and hop stiffly in front of the female, turning sideways and sometimes bowing up and down.” All of this went on in a very unromantic setting: beneath a parked car.

When we see them on streets, at feeders, and in barnyards, these sparrows are often in loose flocks. They routinely squabble among themselves, indicating either submission or dominance, again described well by allaboutbirds.org: “Nervous birds flick their tails. Aggravated birds crouch with the body horizontal, shove their head forward and partially spread and roll forward their wings, and hold the tail erect. This can intensify to a display with wings lifted, crown and throat feathers standing on end, tail fanned, and beak open.” The site also notes that males with more black on their throat and chest tend to dominate over those with less.

The females are equally scrappy and in the spring and summer, they do not hesitate to fly at the males. The prospective couple I saw under the automobile broke off their courtship when the female suddenly attacked the displaying male. Almost immediately another male who had been watching the whole business flew in and began to display in front of her. The rejected suitor flew off and perched nearby, not entirely dissuaded.

This time of year the male P. domesticus is at his most attractive. His head is chestnut-brown from the eyes back to the nape and with a slate-gray patch that extends from the bill up onto the crown. The bill itself is a glossy black. As noted above, the amount of black that spreads down the throat and onto the chest varies from male to male. It contrasts boldly with the white cheeks but dissipates in flecks of charcoal amid the gray of the belly and sides. The back and wings are a complex pattern of brown and black with abbreviated white wing bars.

The females have a similar complex pattern on the back and wings, but it consists of alternating lighter and darker browns. The crown and nape are a light brown; a buffy stripe extends behind the eye. Their underparts are a mottled gray throughout.

Of course, urban life tends to coat birds with a layer of dirt and grime, so seek them out in rural settings to see their true colors. However, with livestock almost absent in cities and agriculture settings becoming increasingly fastidious, house sparrows numbers have steadily declined. Between 1966 and 2004, the North American Breeding Bird Survey documented a decrease of 85% in their population. This leaves “only” 7 million of these introduced ruffians to roist about on our streets and barnyards.

Bill Chaisson has been a birdwatcher from the age of 10. He is a former managing editor of the Eagle Times and now lives and works in the town of Wilmot. Contact him at wpchaisson@gmail.com.

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