Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Invaders (Part Two of Three)

Male House Sparrow at my feeder.
One morning, early this Spring, I took photos of four or five different birds at my feeders within about an hour.  When I examined the photos later I realized (with a little help from a naturalist friend) that they were all sparrows.  In five photos I had both male and female House Sparrows and one solitary Song Sparrow.  I realized that a winter of observing chickadees, bushtits and hummingbirds had changed my perception of size.  The sparrows -- which had once been my definition of "small bird" -- now looked quite substantial (and the robins that showed up at the same time looked enormous).   

In Seattle, sparrows seemed to be associated closely with supermarkets.  The Safeway across the street from me in Ballard, at my old home, had numerous sparrows living in the eaves of its parking garage and nesting, come Spring, in the small trees along the sidewalk.  The QFC close to my new home in West Seattle has the same arrangement, except they have no garage, so that sparrows are hanging out under the front of the building.  I always stop to look at them on my way in.  

Female House Sparrow at my feeder.

As Spring has progressed (if Spring has progressed -- it has been a very intermittent season so far this year) the House Sparrow couple have become frequent visitors at my feeders.  The male is very handsome, with his dashing brown head stripes and direct gaze.  The female is more nondescript, but I often see the two of them together.  (Or at least, I often see a male and female House Sparrow together -- I can't be absolutely positive they're the same couple every time).  

Song Sparrow
Unlike the Song Sparrow, which is native to North America, the House Sparrow is a transplant.  They are native to most of Europe and Asia.  Among "invasive" birds, only the European Starling and the universal Rock Pigeon are more common -- and Rock Pigeons, which are all the feral descendents of domesticated birds, fall into a different category.  The first known, deliberate release of House Sparrows in North America was in Brooklyn, NY (or possibly in Central Park) in 1851.  By 1900 (according to All About Birds) it had spread as far west as the Rocky Mountains.  Although two subsequent releases, in Salt Lake City and San Francisco in the 1870's surely helped the birds get established.

House Sparrows share another trait with Rock Pigeons, they are fond of human housing, seeming to prefer eaves, attics and nest boxes.  They flourish around us.  They are often credited with evicting native species form nesting areas and are known to aggressively defend their homes from other birds.  The pair in my front yard seem to get along fine with the chickadees and juncos who frequent the feeders, but I have seen them squabble with starlings over the suet.  Both invaders seem to get their fair share (as does the rat who lives under the fence -- but more about him next time).

Male House Sparrow going for suet.
So far, the House Sparrows have been an attractive and un-troublesome addition to life in my yard.  I would guess that they are here because they are nesting nearby, and that we are far enough from their winter flock feeding grounds that we won't have to worry about inundation.  I didn't see a single sparrow here over the winter.  

We pay a lot of attention -- deservedly -- to the endangered and embattled species, and worry a lot about the effect of invasive species on native habitats.  Which we should.  But it seems to me that there is something to be learned, too, from the creatures who thrive best in the world that we have created.  After all, it's the opportunistic, aggressive, highly successful, sometimes destructive, adaptable creatures like Starlings, Song Sparrows, Crows and (yes) rats who are in many ways most like us.

Maybe that's why we're so ambivalent about them.

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