House Sparrows are the Rodney Dangerfields of the birding world. They get no respect. This is not entirely undeserved. They are, after all, like pigeons and starlings, “Euro-trash” – interlopers introduced to the Americas where they outnumber more colorful native species.
They are no longer redeemed by the two charming myths formerly associated with them: that they were introduced because someone wanted all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to be resident in the New World, or that they were brought to New York to eat the horse manure off the city streets.
No, House Sparrows are just un-poetic nuisances to many. Around a bird feeder they can act like obnoxious teenagers in front of a 7-11. They’re noisy, they’re messy, and they’re quarrelsome, bullying other birds away from the birdseed. The males at times strut around like perfect, feathered gangstas.
Years ago I had an old Scotsman who served as a feeder observer in my zone of the Christmas bird count. He’d invite me in for a dram of Scotch when I delivered the forms for the count and regale me with stories of his days in the merchant marine. He was a “wee laddie”, maybe five foot four, but his wrists and forearms were the size of two-by-fours. And he smoked a corncob pipe that gave his Scottish burr a gruff edge. I always came away from his house humming: “I’m Popeye, the Birding Man”.
It always struck me as odd that “Popeye” never had any House Sparrows at his feeders. Everybody else did. So I asked him one year: “Don’t you ever get any House Sparrows?” “Aye,” he said, “but I shoot ‘em!”
Thus the fate of the lowly House Sparrow. Scorned even by supposed bird-lovers.
Popeye, the Birding Man soon went on to the great steamship in the sky, but he must be happy up there, knowing that House Sparrow populations are declining here.
Twenty years ago we regularly got about 20,000 House Sparrows on our Christmas counts, give or take the two or three or ten that Popeye shot. Our high was 1989 when Winnipeg had the highest count ever recorded in Canada – 23, 761. This winter we had only 6,533.
Lots of factors can account for the decline, or the apparent decline. But I will miss them if they go the way of the Passenger Pigeon – from the most numerous to the ranks of the extirpated.
Their song may be shrill, monotonous, and noisy, but there is something cheery in that chirping, especially on a bitterly cold Manitoba day. It’s heartening to know that this hardy bird, the king of the LBJs (little brown jobbies), can maintain a seemingly positive attitude under the worst of conditions.
House Sparrows have managed to gain a foothold on every continent of the world except Antarctica. They may be common, but they are not ordinary. Maybe if there were fewer of them, we’d appreciate them more.