The Fall of a Sparrow

Photograph: Herbert Spichtinger/Zefa/Corbis

WHERE THEY LIVE

They arrive uninvited, poor relations with little to recommend them and no plans to leave. Their motto: this’ll do. A hole or a crevice is fine for them. So are rafters, ivy, a streetlamp, a rain-gutter clip. In Kansas, they reside in the continuously bobbing heads of oil pumps. In Turkmenistan, they excavate loess banks. In the Arctic, they squat in railroad roundhouses. Found on six continents, they are the world’s most widely distributed bird. Urban or rural is immaterial to them. Except for this: they are never found more than four hundred meters from a human structure.

WHAT THE EVOLUTIONARY ECOLOGISTS SAY

They are obligate commensals of Homo sapiens. Meaning they cannot live without us. They are our avian shadows. They are Ruth to our Naomi. Wherever you go, there shall I follow. Your home shall be mine. They have disembarked from our ships. They have traveled with us along the Trans-Amazonian Highway. In northern Finland, in South Africa, across all of Siberia and the Americas, in the Bahamas, the Azores, the Falklands, and Cape Verde, we cohabitate. No one recalls when the house sparrow gave up the habit of seasonal migration.

WHERE THEY CAME FROM

They did not arrive. They are as old as agriculture, having speciated at about the time we first threw seeds on the ground and settled down. Their fossils have been found in caves near Bethlehem in Palestine and atop Mount Carmel in Israel. It was Passer domesticus biblicus to which Jesus was referring when he asked, rhetorically, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?” They are the species God’s eye is on. They are believed to have spread to Europe in tandem with the horse. The answer is probably Iraq.

WHAT THEY EAT

Mostly cereal grain and weed seeds. Preglossale is the name of the bone embedded in their tongues for husking. Stomach-content studies show a strong preference for millet over fescue. Catholic in their tastes, they switch to insects during the breeding season. They find dinner in the grillwork of automobiles. They rob spider webs. In Australia, they flutter before the electronic sensors of automatic doors and thereby gain entry into supermarkets. In Hawai’i, they gather on hotel balconies and await the emergence of honeymooning couples at breakfast hours. In Norwegian winters, they forage in total darkness. They are known to consume baby mice. They dislike eating alone.

WHAT THEY SAY

Mostly chirrup, which the Germans hear as tshlip and the British as phip. Sonographs reveal other vocalizations not distinguishable to the human ear. Throughout the day, they gather in communal roosts and chatter, presumably about foraging routes.

THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS TO SCIENCE

Much of what we know about the effect of light-to-dark ratios on sexual maturation comes from experiments using house sparrows, which are not legally protected. For this, they have been hooded, blinded, caged in darkness, castrated, pinealectomized, and defeathered. Passer domesticus is the lab rat of the avian world.

THEIR WORLD-RENOWNED EXPERT

He is retired biologist Ted R. Anderson, a man you might wish for your own father. Gregarious, curious, easygoing, Anderson hoped to land a research position after graduate school. Instead, he found himself employed at a teaching college in the soy fields of Illinois. He stayed on, raised a family, and studied sparrows. His life’s work is distilled into a 547-page monograph. Nine years in the writing, it brings together literature from all over the world, involves translations from the Russian, and contains elegantly drawn graphs accompanied by captions such as “Monthly Changes in the Mean Volume of the Left Testis of a House Sparrow in Iowa.” The book’s final paragraph is this: “As I watch live television news from Baghdad, Gaza, Jerusalem, or Kosovo and hear sparrows chirping in the background, I sometimes wonder what opinion, if any, the house sparrow has about the havoc wreaked by its human hosts.”

THE MYSTERY OF THEIR BADGES

Males sport a black bib, or badge, that varies considerably in size among individuals. Why? Badge size does not predict dominance. It is not related to command of resources. It is not a function of size or health. Females show no preference for large- or small-badged males. If size matters to the house sparrow, it matters in ways not known to us.

THE MYSTERY OF THEIR WORLDWIDE DISAPPEARANCE

Like the honeybee, the house sparrow is experiencing unexplained, catastrophic population collapses, including here in the Americas but especially among urban populations in Europe. Unlike honeybees, sparrows generate few headlines announcing their ongoing demise. In England and Ireland, the number of breeding pairs has declined by 30–50 percent over the past two decades, a loss of as many as 7 million birds. In some urban areas, losses approach 99 percent. Says Anderson, “Not since the Irish Potato Famine . . . have the British Isles witnessed such a major population decline.” A lowered survival rate among juveniles appears to be the problem. Newly emerging avian diseases? There is some evidence for this hypothesis from Europe. Global climate change? There is some evidence for this hypothesis from Israel. The sparrow is the new canary.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY WITH HOUSE SPARROW

The spring my mother’s breast cancer returned, I found an injured sparrow on the concrete slab of the school bus stop. I took it home and fed it milk-soaked bits of bread. Eventually, it learned to fly—but never properly because its left leg jutted out at a right angle, so it would flutter around me in loopy circles. Finally, it died. I told my mother it had flown away.

In college, I studied ornithology. My English-major boyfriend, wanting to join me in the spirit of birding, called me to the window of our wretched apartment, excited about the wrens in the hedge. “Those are just house sparrows,” I shrugged. “They’re invasive. They take over bluebird boxes. They’re everywhere.”

I have begun searching for them in parking lots, around grain elevators and loading docks, among the landscaping at gas stations, along subway station stairwells, under freeway overpasses. Are these spaces more sparrowless than they used to be? Is there an inanimation among the dirt and dust where, formerly, dirt- and dust-colored inhabitants cocked their heads? Have I taken too little care of this?

On an unusually warm evening, I met a colleague in the courtyard of a downtown restaurant. We looked together at the latest breast cancer statistics. The ivy shivered with sparrows, and their incessant chirping made conversation difficult. An ashen feather fell into my wineglass.

I was happy, happy to receive it.

Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., is an ecologist, author, and cancer survivor. She is an expert on the environmental links to cancer and human health, including, especially, the health effects of fracking for natural gas. She holds a doctoral degree in biology from the University of Michigan and is the author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment and, most recently, Raising Elijah: Protecting Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis. Formerly on faculty at Cornell University, Sandra Steingraber is currently Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, and a founder of the organization New Yorkers Against Fracking.

Comments

  1. “They did not arrive…” is not telling the whole truth. Perhaps they did not “arrive” (from some other place) in their NATIVE* range, but they are considered invasive pests in the areas to which humans DID bring them (e.g., the Americas)–places that they would not have arrived without direct human intervention. This species “may evict native birds from their nests and outcompete them for trophic resources.” “Early in its invasion of North America, [this species] began attacking ripening grains on farmland and was considered a serious agricultural pest.”

    Let’s not glamorize an invasive pest species (outside its native range)!

    -pt

    (*Its native range–i.e., where it evolved–is “Eurasia and northern Africa,” according to Global Invasive Species Database [a product of the Invasive Species Specialist Group of the IUCN, an internationally-respected group of scientists]. http://tinyurl.com/2wj84z)

  2. In response to Phillip: Humans in North America are also an invasive species. So are lots of other organisms (some rodents, bacteria, domesticated animals etc). So, saying an organism is an invasive species is not much of an argument.

    Likewise, “native species” is not necessarily of particular value. As a biologist, I can tell you that many species become extinct and are replaced by other species. For example, the horse which evolved in the Americas became extinct in North America after it had invaded Eurasia. Good thing they did not get rid of the horse.

    What seems to be important to humans is first of all to find out why a given species is decreasing significantly in numbers. The decline of House Sparrows in Europe suggests there has been a change in the environment. One possible change in the environment given by the author is the spread of an avian influenza virus to House Sparrows.

    I think that any successful species can be considered a “pest species” if and when that organism gets in the way of humans.

  3. So how do you define “invasive species”? Are humans “invasive”? Are domestic cats “invasive”? Do we apply that term only to species we’ve introduced that we subsequently regret having introduced?

  4. What I am saying is that the term ‘invasive species’ is descriptive only. Species commonly invade one area or another. Some use birds and hitch a ride. Others use humans or arrive accidentally. There are always consequences when a new species arrives in an area in which it was previously not present.

    I have difficulty with saying that invasive species are bad or good. That says more about the speakers values.

  5. Mystery of their Badges

    I thought I saw some research a few years ago which suggested the “badges” indicated a hierarchy of dominance among males which manifested itself in who was allowed primary access to food.

    I’m sure the article I saw suggested an almost military ranking order depending on size of the said badge or shield.

  6. I read the book, “Providence of a Sparrow” by Chris Chester in which the author and his wife share their house with a sparrow. I’ve been fascinated by these creatures ever since. I believe we take it for granted that sparrows will always be around. This is probably another wakeup call that something is amiss in the environment.

    Sparrows are a fixture in my neighborhood and the article describes them very well. They’re hard working, cheerful,and ever present. I’d hate to see them leave.

  7. Difficult toppic, Philip touches on the clasic definition of “invasive” species, but at what point should it no longer be an invasive? They have been around for quite some time now, why not just leave them alone and accept that fact, at least that is what I am trying to do. May be we should focus on another “invasive” and parasitic avian like the brown-headed cowbird and the impications that is is now coast to coast in the US, when historically it never used to be. To me that is a deeper, darker and more far reaching problem than a house sparrow.

  8. While I was a graduate student at the University of Kansas in the early 1960’s my major advisor, Richard Johnston, studied the evolution of the House Sparrow in North America. He demonstrated in a series of papers, the first one appeared in Science, that the species had experienced morphological change in just a few generations in response to natural selection caused by various ecological differences. For example, sparrows in Edmonton Alberta were darker and larger than sparrows inhabiting desert areas of the Southwest (responses ecologists know as Bergman’s and Allen’s Rules.) Johnston’s work helped to advance the thinking of evolutionists that change can occur more rapidly than once thought.

  9. A pest is usually defined as anything that competes with humans. It is almost laughable to discuss the sparrow as a pest. Humans are responsible for soil degration, deforestation,loss of species, pollution, acid rain, greenhouse effect, radioactive wastes, and all of this and more are products of the human situation – NOT the innocent Sparrow – whose demise can only be one more thing in the chain of destruction caused by humans. Let us say that “The Fall of a Sparrow” can only serve as another reminder that we should all do everything we can return our lives and our environment to a natural state of balance.

  10. In this case invasive means that HOSP was deliberately introduced here, only later to have devastating effects on native bird populations – particularly small cavity nesters such as bluebirds and tree swallows. A decline in HOSP in North America would be very desirable, not something to lament. I will do my best to contribute to that decline through passive and humane active management. Yes, humans cause all kinds of problems throughout the world, but that’s no excuse for allowing the propagation of a bird which causes such havoc for our native species. See http://www.sialis.org/hosp.htm for more information.

  11. I found your article by following a link from http://www.sparroworks.ca/wordpress

    It’s interesting to get an international perspective on the decline of the house sparrow. Here in the UK, it is now unusual to see sparrows in groups of more than a half a dozen. When I started birding, 35 years ago, flocks of several hundred could regularly be seen foraging in arable fields.

    I suspect that there are many reasons behind the sparrow’s decline, including the destruction of nest sites plus changes in farming practices.

    A few years ago, I visited Skara Brae and was delighted to find house sparrows nesting in the walls of the neolithic buildings.

  12. The aborigines of Australia, when faced with the introduction of countless species brought by European settlers, witnessed the destruction that these strange animals wreaked on the local habitat. Yet when the Europeans, waking up to the `problem’ created by the species they had brought with them, began initiating policies to cull these creatures, the Aborigines were not supportive; their attitude appeared to be, once a new element has been introduced into an environment, allow the environment to find its own balance. Nature always stabilises accute instability, though it may take longer than humans are want to wait, and it may not take the form we most desire. Fundamentally however, there is a need to trust in Nature’s innate wisdom. Our energy would be best spent clearing our own mess up, pollution etc. and making our back gardens hospitable for the spirits (manifest and unmanifest) that might bless us with their presence.

  13. Thanks, Sandra, for your heart-felt article. These days it is hard to imagine the wealth of species and the fullness of species that the world once had. Of course, the most competitive species, the one that destroys most habitat and evicts the native inhabitants, is our very own.

    There are nearly 1000 species of tree threatened with extinction in the USA according to the World Resources Institute. How many animal, plant, bird, fish and insect species rely on those disappearing varieties for their survival? (Yes, fish do rely on trees to create groundwater systems that filter water that feeds rivers and lakes.) We clear-cut our bio-diverse forests and replace them with mono-crop,lack-lustre, bio-reduced stands of trees that we insist on calling “forests” and “woodlands”.

    In a few years we harvest even these second-rate tree farms to make disposable and mostly unnecessary paper products. Then the “forests” are planted again in soil that gets further depleted each time the cycle takes place. But hey, what the …. It keeps the economy going.

    Then we have the nerve to call other species “pests” and accuse them of competing with native species for the resources that we haven’t yet decided to use and develop for ourselves. But if we do want to develop an area such as one where “sparrows are evicting birds from their nests and outcompeting them for tropohic resources”, we usually don’t let such minor considerations stand in our way.

    If mega-developments such as dams, power stations, sprawling malls, sprawling subrubs, highways, industrial complexes, industrial crop farming, industrial wood-fibre farming or airports are planned for an area…the goose is cooked…along with the navtive birds, invading sparrows, native cultures and longterm settled farming communities with ripening grains on their farmland.

    I don’t think we should take the moral high-ground about invasive and competitive species while we glamorize our own achievements that lay waste to the best part of nature’s gifts. Before our domination of the earth and our pillaging of her resources, she managed to provide natural sustenance and natural economy for a much richer and abundant tapestry of species, than we have now…including our own or we wouldn’t be here now.

    I hear what you are saying, Philip, but I really think that we need to look at the big picture here.

    I agree with you Sandra. It is frightening to see a common species like the house sparrow become so uncommon. We are looking Silent Spring in the face and maybe one day we will wish from the bottom of our hearts to give up all of our investments, techno-toys knicknacks and trinkets just to see a sparrow again.

  14. I agree with Beth that we need to look at the big picture. The article in Orion “The Fall of a Sparrow” started me wondering about the big picture.

    The Audubon Society and North American Bird Conservation Initiative are two groups looking at the general decline in many bird populations.

    If you are interested in what is happening to a particular bird go to http://audubon2.org/cbchist/graph.html

    Using that web site I graphed the decline in the House Sparrow and the Common Grackle. The data are generated by the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count counts (from about 107 years ago through 2006). Using these numbers, the House Sparrow in the US appears to have declined from a high roughly 50 years ago to approximately 17% of that value.

    The Audubon Watchlist can be observed at http://web1.audubon.org/science/species/watchlist/browsewatchlist.php

    The American Bird Conservancy says the following: More than one-third of the 650 bird species that breed in the U.S. have declining populations, are restricted to small ranges, or face serious threats. Habitat loss and poor habitat management threaten these species, and without improved effort they will continue to decline.

    Much of the annual loss of birds is due to human activities.

  15. Some good conversation about the invasive issue here. For your interest, another Orion columnist took this issue up directly in the Sept/Oct 2006 issue: Bob Pyle, Orion’s resident naturalist, wrote in With Enemies Like These that invasives are a real problem, but that they have some upsides we never hear about…in particular, butterfly bush has been a nuisance in numerous places, yet it has been a boon to particular butterfly species which are teetering on the edge.

    If you have a copy of this issue handy, I encourage a quick re-read. I think Bob hits all the right notes.

    Erik
    Orion Grassroots Network

  16. I think it,s a shame that sparrows get singled out. I have had thousands of sparrows on my property for the past three years and they are great. I build thousands of homes for them and i treat them with the same respect that any other living creature deserves believe they are here for a reason just like everyone else.

  17. I forgot to mention if anyone is interested in seeing what i do for sparrows and other types of birds just Google Extreme Birdhouses.
    They live better then i do. lol

  18. I first read this article over a year ago and it has been stuck in my head ever since.

    What an amazing story of a bird that many of us choose to ignore or hate.

    Invasive species yes. But we can still choose to learn from these critters that have managed to follow us through the centuries.

    Thanks for a great article.

  19. I agree, we should look closer to home before we cast aspersions upon the humble sparrow.

  20. sparrow demise perhaps related to the demise of pheasants in PA due to the sterilization / failure to hatch problem caused by “no-till” sprays used on corn, etc.??

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