Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Old World Sparrow

Sometimes during morning or evening,
I go out on my deck and stand at the railing and gaze out into the woods. 
It's very relaxing,  
and I always focus on one thing that hangs from a distant tree:
a small white birdhouse built by my brother-in-law.

Here's the long view:

And here it is up close.

Near this birdhouse, there is an old bluebird house
that is usually nested in by house sparrows, 
also called English sparrows or Old World sparrows.
I didn't really expect bluebirds to settle there 
because I think they need some open space.
But I did think maybe a sparrow or two would find need of its shelter.

And of course, the English sparrow could use a friend.
I had mentioned in an earlier blog on mockingbirds 
that sparrows were one of the few songbirds exempted from 
the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
And why?
The poor sparrow is often vilified as a tramp, a thief, a nuisance, and
a usurper of food and shelter for native songbirds.
All true, I suppose. 
But sparrows can't help it if they are good at surviving and thriving 
in their adopted country.

E. A. Zimmerman hosts a really excellent web site dedicated to bluebirds;
and in service to their survival, 
she writes about controlling sparrows humanely.
Her page on the history of sparrows is chock full of information and sources.
Most notably, one of her sources explains
 that house sparrows were imported in the 1850s
in order to control insect populations,
which turned out to be a misguided venture
since, as Zimmerman and others have noted, sparrows subsist primarily on seeds.
Here's a link to her history page:

The online site for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a great place
to get detailed information about English sparrows.
There are audios of the sparrow's song and calls, videos,
and information about how to identify the different sparrow species.
They also have a project called "Celebrate Urban Birds!"
which encourages people to accord
sparrows, starlings, and other "thuggish" birds more respect.

It's difficult to write about sparrows 
without also thinking of the old spiritual
"His Eye is on the Sparrow" popularized by Ethel Waters, the blues singer.
Here's a newer version of the song performed by Lauryn Hill and Tanya Blount
that I think is just beautiful:

The lyrics can serve as a gentle reminder
 that even the common, ubiquitous sparrow
is entitled to a little positive regard.

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