Learning About Sparrows, Those “Little Brown Birds”

Learning About Sparrows, Those “Little Brown Birds”

During the 1950s and 1960s, as a young birder in the north of England, I frankly ignored the rather common, drab and inconspicuous-looking birds known as house sparrows and tree sparrows that I encountered around the farm. The two species look very similar except that the tree sparrow has a warm red-brown crown (the house sparrow’s crown is grey), white patches on the side of its head and a small black cheek patch. Both are Old World species, distributed across Europe and Asia, and rarely migrate significant distances. The house sparrow forages on grain and seeds plus household scraps, whereas the tree sparrow’s diet extends to include fruits and invertebrates such as insects. There was a third kind of “little brown bird” that would furtively skulk around hedgerows, usually looking for small insects and seeds, that I called a hedge sparrow. However, later in life, I was told that it was not a member of the sparrow family, and I should rename it a dunnock.


Eurasian dunnockEurasian dunnock (not a hedge sparrow!)


It seems that the sparrow family has often suffered from human interventions. Today, although the house sparrow population in the UK shows signs of increasing, possibly due to warmer weather, during the period 1977 to 2006, their numbers declined around 70 percent, and in an equivalent period, tree sparrow totals fell by 93 percent. Agricultural intensification and specialization, pollution, the wider use of pesticides, more cats, less availability of food and maybe even diseases, such as avian malaria, caused these reductions. One thing is clear, human behavior can have very serious effects and create unintended consequences when people interfere with nature.


The Great Sparrow CampaignThe Great Sparrow Campaign, China in 1958–1961


For example, in 1958, China began its Great Sparrow Campaign to cull the tree sparrow population because the bird was believed to be contributing to the declining yield of farmers’ crops. Several million birds were slaughtered. What was not realized was that the tree sparrow loves eating locusts. These insects multiplied, invaded the fields, attacked other vegetation, and created an even greater reduction in food supplies that contributed to the Three Years of Natural Disasters during which tens of millions of Chinese residents died of starvation.

Once I moved to the United States, I encountered a dramatic change in the numbers and varieties of sparrow. Fortunately, I was still able to identify the Eurasian house sparrow. These birds were introduced deliberately into the United States, starting during the spring of 1851, in part to establish wildlife that was familiar to European immigrants. Eight pairs were released in Brooklyn, New York. These hardy and aggressive birds that enjoy human company flourished, and were subsequently introduced elsewhere, rapidly spreading across the 48 lower states and parts of Canada. They arrived in California, where I now live, during 1910. In the 1940s it was estimated that there were about 150 million house sparrows across North America and they were regarded as pests, eating grain, seed and cattle feed, and displacing native species such as robins, chickadees, flycatchers and bluebirds by commandeering their nesting sites. However, as in Europe, their numbers have dramatically declined during recent decades for reasons probably similar to those in the UK, and their population today is estimated at around seven million. Nonetheless, the current worldwide number of house sparrows is estimated at close to half-a-billion.


sparrowsWhere have all the sparrows gone?!


The highly active Eurasian tree sparrow also made its way to North America, but was less effective than the house sparrow in extending its range. Apparently, It was brought from Germany and about a dozen were released in St. Louis in 1870. The species took hold but were contained geographically by the more aggressive and adaptable house sparrow, and preferred to live in rural areas rather than in cities. Tree sparrows are still resident in parts of Missouri, Illinois, and southeastern Iowa. They do not migrate.


white and golden crowned sparrows


But now I must comment on North America’s native species of sparrow. I am told that there are some 35 to 50 species, including relatives that do not carry the name of sparrow, but my descriptions will focus on California varieties. Here we have the white-crowned sparrow (resident along the coast but with migrants arriving inland during winter; recognized by its distinctive zebra-like black and white head feathers ), the golden-crowned sparrow (winter visitor; golden crown stripe, bordered by black), the rufous-crowned sparrow (resident; rufous crown, grey face, grey underparts and rust-colored stripes on the back), the song sparrow (the most widespread and most common resident, typically found close to water, and noted for its singing; any small brownish bird singing its heart out for seconds at a time from a perch will likely be a song sparrow), the chipping sparrow (summer presence but most migrate to Mexico for winter; crisp and cleanly shaped, frosty-colored underparts, bright rusty crown and black line through the eye), and the Eurasian house sparrow (resident and already described).


Song and Chipping Sparrows


Additionally, there is the Lincoln sparrow (winter visitor and similar to the song sparrow except it is cuter and has a buffy-colored appearance), the white-throated sparrow (winter visitor; white throat and yellow between the eye and bill, and known for its song described as “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada”), the grasshopper sparrow (summer visitor; brown and tan with slight streaking and a species whose population has tumbled 70 percent during the last 50 years, probably in part due to habitat loss, pesticides, and brood parasitism by the brown-headed cowbird), the fox sparrow (winter visitor; rust-brown above and grey on the head), and the savannah sparrow (year round; brown above and white below, yellowish stripe over the eye, and crisp streaking). Occasionally, rarer species turn up such as the LeConte’s sparrow. You can be excused from being confused over which variety you are looking at since, while it is easy to explain the differences, in reality it is hard to distinguish the species when the birds are moving around very quickly and possibly trying to hide.


Grasshopper and Savannah Sparrows


Just to add to the confusion, there are several related species that do not carry the name of “sparrow” but belong to the same family. For example, there is the hansom black-hooded dark-eyed junco, the all-brown California towhee, and the orange and black spotted towhee, by far the largest “sparrows”. All varieties tend to forage on or near the ground, kicking with their feet the surface of the dirt and litter to search for food. Some species such as the dark-eyed junco migrate short to medium distances; hence the species is often believed to arrive in backyards just before winter settles in.


Dark-eyed junco and California towhee


So what does the word “sparrow” mean and why are North American sparrows given this name when they are not related to the Eurasian ones. In fact, they are members of the “bunting” family that also enjoys a diet of seeds and insects. Presumably early immigrants in America saw “little brown birds”, like the ones back home, and adopted the same name of “sparrow”. The English word is derived from the old Anglo-Saxon word “spearwa”, meaning “fluttering”. Buntings occur in the Old World and the migrant snow bunting appears both in Europe and North America.


Snow bunting


I observed these birds on migration at Spurn Point in Yorkshire during my teen years, and in the United States, they are winter migrants, flocking south and foraging on bare ground and corn stubble. North America is home to other species of bunting such as the Lazuli, Lark, Indigo, Painted and Varied buntings, and the corn bunting, reed bunting, cirl bunting, Lapland bunting (known in the USA as the Lapland longspur because of its long hind claws), and yellowhammer (“ammer” means bunting in German) are the typical representatives in the UK.

Inadvertently, the sparrow has contributed to the creation of another Americanism where an English word is used to describe something very different from what the word was originally intended. However, the word is simple, straightforward and easily understood. It joins other American words that in Britain mean something very different than in the United State, such as pavement, chips, biscuit, braces and purse.





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