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Brooklyn Bird Watch: April 21

The House Sparrow. Scientific Name: Passer domesticus

April 21, 2023 Joseph Palmer
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Today, Brooklyn Bird Watch features the House Sparrow. So far Brooklyn Bird Watch has featured several species of Sparrow, including the Fox Sparrow, the White Throated Sparrow, and the Song Sparrow, but not the House Sparrow. Along with the European Starling and the Rock Pigeon, the House Sparrow is surely one of our most common birds, and like the Starling or the Rock Pigeon, the House Sparrow has maintained a kind of love/hate relationship with humans.

With this posting Brooklyn Bird Watch also celebrates the unique history of the House Sparrow and special place Brooklyn holds in the history of their existence in North America.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology maps the House Sparrow everywhere in the United States and Mexico, with large areas of South America covered, as well as a most of Southern Canada. As Audubon notes, Antarctica is the only continent where House Sparrows do not nest.

And yet, ornithologists also say House Sparrows are small and common place to the point of barely being hardly noticed. One reason they are overlooked is probably because one certainly doesn’t have to go “birding” to spot one. In fact, if your spouse came home from a walk in the park and said with enthusiasm, “Honey, guess what I saw today?” And you said, genuinely intrigued, “What?” And she said, “I saw a House Sparrow!” And so you say nonchalantly “Oh?” (and quizzically glance at the camera as if to say “is she serious”) then go back to reading your book.

The House Sparrow takes “dirt baths”.  You heard that right, they take baths in the dirt. They make small depressions in the loose dirt with their feet, then sit with their bellies in the depression and skillfully toss the dirt under their wings and over their backs, just like it was water. The point is to use the dirt to clean (or scrub) the skin of excess oil and cleanse the area around the base of the feathers while choking out parasites. The dirt baths help these skillful fliers fly more efficiently. Also, if you’ve ever seen a group of them bathing in a patch of loose dirt you might be amused when they become aggressive and territorial about defending and maintaining their own little bathing spots, because that’s when the dust really starts flying around.

These birds were first introduced to North America from Europe by way of Brooklyn in 1851. Shortly after, they were introduced to the western parts of the U.S., and the rest is (avian) history.

There was a time in New York City in the 1800s when the parks were infested with tiny inch worms that not only ate tree leaves and shrubbery but would also hang from branches and fall down people’s shirt collars.

A group of prominent New Yorkers had heard that the house sparrows in European cities were used to help control the insect infestations, so they had eight pairs of sparrows imported from England in 1850.

The birds were kept in the Brooklyn Institute, formerly the Brooklyn Apprentices Library building on the corner of Henry and Cranberry streets. The birds were cared for and housed in a large cage during the winter months and were released in the spring of 1851, but they all died before they were able to breed.

In 1853 Nicholas Pike, Director of the Brooklyn Institute, then traveled to Liverpool in person to collect more of the insect-eating birds. He purchased about 100 house sparrows and song birds, and shipped them back to New York. After 11 days at sea, half the birds were released at the Narrows tidal straight, while the other half were taken to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

The fifty birds were originally kept in the cemetery’s bell tower, but they didn’t seem to thrive so the Brooklyn Institute trustee-librarian John Hooper brought the sparrows to his house for the winter. In the spring of 1853, the birds were released into the cemetery where someone was employed to take care of the birds. This second wave of sparrows thrived in their new surroundings at Green-Wood Cemetery and over the years several more shipments of sparrows were delivered and released into the cemetery as well as Central Park. While some considered the sparrows to be a loud nuisance, others were pleased that the birds were feeding on insects and the inchworms.

The city also encouraged people to feed the birds and provide them with water in the winter. In 1870, The New York Times even published instructions for providing water: “Water should be placed in milk pans or other shallow broad-bottomed vessels, wherein it should be poured three or four inches deep, with little bits of blocks or boards floating on the surface, on which the birds will light and easily satisfy their wants.”

By the late 1870s, New Yorkers were raising hell over the House Sparrow population surge, which had all but chased away the native songbirds. Some suggested tearing down their homes or shooting the birds. At one time the Department of Agriculture was so exasperated over the prolific flocks that a campaign was sponsored to poison them.

But, as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology writes, “House Sparrows, with their capacity to live so intimately with us, are just beneficiaries of our own success.”

In 1884, a committee of the American Union of Ornithologists declared the sparrow a nuisance, thief, and murderer, and recommended it be exterminated. In 1886, a New York State statute was passed making it illegal to feed or shelter the birds — the penalty was up to a year in prison and a fine up to $1,000. And in 1900, the Lacey Act — a Congressional law that addresses illegal wildlife trade to protect species at risk and bars importing species found to be injurious to the United States — prohibited importing English sparrows.

Despite all efforts to eliminate the sparrow from America, the little bird did so much more than just survive. In September 1960, the year the Department of the Interior removed the bird from the list of banned species — The New York Times declared that the 100-year war on the sparrow had ended, and that, for better or worse, it was one of the most abundant of North American birds.

When you consider the fact that it essentially all started in a cemetery, one might be justified in thinking; No wonder our relationship with the House Sparrow is complex.

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