The House Sparrow is one of the most common birds in the United States. Its adaptability and hardiness make it abundant in places where other species don’t live. With a fierce attitude, this aggressive bird out-competes other species and is considered to be an ecological pest.
Much of the distain toward the House Sparrow stems from the fact that it was not originally native to North American, putting it at the top of the list of avian invasives. So where did the House Sparrow come from? And what do we do with it now that it’s here?
Before we look into the story of the House Sparrow let’s take a minute to understand it as a species. The House Sparrow is a stout bird with a round head and short bill. Males have a chestnut back, gray crown and underside, white cheeks and a black bib. Females are light brown with buff and brown striped backs and a buffy eye stripe. The House Sparrow’s native range is Europe, Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. They live in groups and can be found near humans as they take advantage of scraps left behind in cities. House Sparrows are extremely territorial cavity nesters that will attack other birds trying to nest in an area they inhabit.
Now for the House Sparrows westward expansion: let’s go back to the year 1850. Millard Fillmore had just become president after Zachary Taylor died in office, the entire western half of the US was territories, and the fugitive slave act was passed by congress. This is pre-civil war America and in the midst of a migrant boom with over 30 million European immigrants making their way across the Atlantic between 1836 and 1914.
At this time in American history, a fascination arose for trading wildlife from one continent to another. Many wealthy individuals and societies on the east coast began dabbling in this hobby. One such organization was the Brooklyn Institute in New York.
To know the story of the House Sparrow we have to know the institute’s director: Nicholas Pike. Pike cemented his spot in the story as the man responsible for the first House Sparrows brought to the United states when he had 8 pairs shipped over in 1850. The cited reason for the introduction? To control an infestation of insects (either canker worms or larva of the linden moth). A secondary reason was to bring a species to America that European immigrants would be used to and find pleasant. Yes, that’s right, pleasant. At this point in time, nobody knew of the negative consequences introducing a nonnative species could have on native wildlife. As a result, the importation of the initial birds was met with little resistance.
In 1851 the first 16 birds were released. Here is where the story gets a bit murky. Pike is quoted as stating that the first 16 birds “did not thrive” upon their release. Some argue that this means all 16 birds perished. Others suggest this may just mean that they disappeared, perhaps dispersing and starting their lives as the first colonists to one day spread their species all across the new world.
In 1852, Pike was appointed Consul General to Portugal and sailed to Liverpool where he made a large order of songbirds including 50 pairs of House Sparrows. The birds were shipped over on the steamship Europa. Pike however was on his way to Portugal and was not present when the sparrows made it to America. 50 of these birds were released in the Narrows in 1852 and then another 50 were released at the Green-wood Cemetery Chapel a year later in 1853. The problem is that Pike did not witness the release of these birds, and his account is the only one to go off of as it pertains to the initial three releases. As a result it’s impossible to say which batch of released birds was the first to gain a foothold in the United States. But let’s pause for a second, because something important happened in 1854 that changed the landscape of world bird life.
In 1854, half way around the world in Paris, the Société zoologique d’acclimatation was founded by French naturalist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. The goal of this group was to bring in flora and fauna that could be useful for pest control and food sources. In America, copycat societies were starting to pop up as well., including one in New York.
Now, lets get to know another important man in this story, Eugene Schieffelin. Schieffelin was a pharmacist and amateur ornithologist very interested in the importation of European bird species. He was a prominent member of the American Acclimatization Society and started by importing House Sparrows as pest control around his Madison Square home. Schieffelin was not only responsible for the release of many House Sparrows, but is almost single handedly responsible for the release of another invasive, the European starling. But that’s a story for another time, Anyway, Schieffelin certainly played a role in the propagation of the House Sparrow and along with other sister organizations such as the Cincinnati Acclimatization Society continued to release European Species into North America. Some other bird species released by these groups were Song Thrushes, Wagtails, and Skylarks, but the House Sparrow was one of the few that was able to succeed. Why?
For starters, the house sparrow is hardy and adaptable. They eat a wide variety of foods including grains, insects, and even fruits and berries. They are perfectly comfortable living alongside humans and take advantage of city structures to nest in. They are prolific breeders having multiple broods of usually over 3 chicks at a time. In addition, they nest earlier in the year than most migratory species, allowing them to establish nests before other species migrate back to compete for nest sites. To make life even easier for the House Sparrow, they lacked natural predators in North America, thus allowing them to multiply totally unchecked.
In the following years house sparrows continued to be introduced by various organizations. Portland, Maine in 1854, Nova Scotia in 1856, New Haven in 1857, and Peacedale, RI in 1858. By 1870 House Sparrows could be found as far west as Texas and as far south as the Carolinas. In 1871 House Sparrows were introduced to San Francisco and Hawaii, they were in Salt Lake City in 1872, and established as a breeding bird in California by 1910.
In the late 1800’s people were beginning to notice the potential negative impact of the House Sparrows. In 1887 and 1895 Illinois and Michigan spent a total of 117,500 dollars on efforts to eradicate the species; the modern equivalent of about 2.2 million dollars. In 1898 the department of agriculture wrote an article labeling the House Sparrow “one of the worst avian pests”
So why are house sparrows bad for North America? The biggest reasons have to do with competition with native species. The House sparrow is particularly aggressive when it comes to nesting sites. They have been known to kill other cavity nesting birds including adults, juveniles, and eggs. Many bird lovers have nothing but disdain for the house sparrow, especially those who have ever had bird houses invaded by them.
So what are people doing about this invasive species? Right now, not much. The House sparrow is so well established that it would take a massive initiative to even make a dent in their population. In addition, it’s estimated that anything capable of wiping out house sparrows would also have immense negative effects on native species. For now, any efforts on removing house sparrows is focused on removing them from locations inhabited by sensitive species and are occurring on a small scale. With a population of 540 million worldwide it would seem the house sparrow is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Are there any positives about House Sparrows living in the US? Well, they might eat some insects that are harmful to crops such as alfalfa, maybe.
The House Sparrow’s story is one of intrigue. This is the story of a hardy and aggressive bird coming to colonize a foreign land and stretching its reach east to west across the continent. It is a story of a misguided introduction effort in an attempt to bring some of the old world to the new. And it is a story of an unwanted human companion that has been with Americans even before the civil war started. Sure, many detest them, but that hasn’t deterred the house sparrow from making itself at home in the land of the free.
One thought on “The House Sparrow: How did they get here?”
Hello. A well written and interesting essay that I found very informative. I am not overly fond of house sparrows for the reasons you stated, but as a gardener I will say on their behalf that they are about the only bird around here (KS) that aggressively eats grasshoppers in their nymph stage in early spring when they are hatching like a plague. I loathe the grasshoppers that descend on my garden every year. I have a bird bath, but I don’t have a feeder, so I rarely see house sparrows around my house. I see plenty of the “good” birds at the bird bath. The occasional house sparrow that shows up is usually well behaved at the bath. Thank you for the history you presented in this essay. (In the 8th paragraph above when you refer to Nicholas Pike, you inadvertently wrote “whiteness” when I think you meant to say “witness”).