Bird of the Month January 2019

A female House Sparrow 

House Sparrow

Passer domesticus

House Sparrows are small brown-gray birds in the sparrow family. They are often referred to as Old World sparrows because they are actually from Europe and are exotic and invasive in North America.

During breeding season, the male House Sparrow is a handsome fellow, with a chestnut-colored nape, gray top of head, white cheeks and black around the eyes and down the throat and chest. Wings are dark brown, black and gray and the belly is gray. Females are less flamboyant with black, light brown and gray wings, back and cap and gray everywhere else. Non-breeding males look much like the females but the wings may be darker. Both have a stout conical bill typical of sparrows.

Behavior and Habitat

House Sparrows are social birds and are often seen in flocks. They are common visitors to bird feeders especially if millet and cracked corn are offered. They are often bullies at the feeders, trying to dominate them for themselves.

House Sparrows take frequent dust baths to rid themselves of parasites. You may find small depressions in dusty places that House Sparrows defend from other birds. They commonly bath in street puddles as well.

House Sparrows have acclimated to human activity so well that you seldom find them far from human habitation. This is especially true in dryer climates where they may be found exclusively around human infrastructure.

House Sparrows hop rather than walk along the ground.

“House Sparrows nest in holes of buildings and other structures such as streetlights, gas-station roofs, signs, and the overhanging fixtures that hold traffic lights. They sometimes build nests in vines climbing the walls of buildings. House Sparrows are strong competitors for nest boxes, too, at times displacing the species the nest box was intended for, such as bluebirds and Tree Swallows. House Sparrows nest in holes in trees somewhat less often.”

Similar Species

There are many species that can be mistaken for House Sparrows and vice versa. This is especially true for the female which resembles the females of a number of other sparrow and finch species. The non-breeding male is also very similar to the female. You may mistake a breeding male House Sparrow for a Black-throated Sparrow, a White-crowned Sparrow or a Harris Sparrow.

Cool Facts

It seems that to be chosen as a bird of the month is something of an honor and many people may question why it is bestowed upon the invasive exotic House Sparrow. There are two reasons why I chose it for this month. First, the fact that the House Sparrow is wildly successful in thriving around humanity and that in itself is noteworthy. Second, because the House Sparrow is so ubiquitous, it often must be excluded from consideration when trying to identify many small songbirds.

House Sparrows, once called English Sparrows, were first introduced into New York City in 1851 by immigrants homesick for Great Britain and hoping to bring in a bit of the old country. Within 50 years, they had spread to the Rocky Mountains and two more releases in the mid-1870s in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, helped this species become well established from coast to coast and from central Canada to Panama.

House Sparrows are prolific, having as many as eight eggs in a nest.

“The House Sparrow prefers to nest in manmade structures such as eaves or walls of buildings, street lights, and nest boxes instead of in natural nest sites such as holes in trees.”

“House Sparrows in flocks have a pecking order much the way chickens in a farmyard do. You can begin to decipher the standings by paying attention to the black throats of the males. Males with larger patches of black tend to be older and dominant over males with less black. By wearing this information on their feathers, sparrows can avoid some fights and thereby save energy.”

When and where found at Camas NWR

House Sparrows are aptly named as they really like to hang out around buildings. In the winter you may find them in large flocks around the headquarters area and the bird feeders. They may be elsewhere on the Refuge as well.

Conservation

“House Sparrow populations declined by over 3.5% between 1966 and 2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 84%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 540 million with 13% in the U.S., 2% in Canada and 2% in Mexico. The species rates an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Scale. As a non-native species, it is not included on the 2016 State of the Birds Report. Nest holes in trees and nest boxes are valuable commodities for birds that require them for breeding. House Sparrows are fierce competitors for these, and their abundance can squeeze out some native cavity-nesting species. After becoming common in North American cities, House Sparrows moved out to colonize farmyards and barns during the twentieth century. With the recent industrialization of farms, House Sparrows now seem to be declining across most of their range.” www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/House_Sparrow/lifehistory

A male House Sparrow at a bird bath.

Text by Terry Thomas. Source: https://www.allaboutbirds.org

Photos by Terry Thomas.