Sunday, November 13, 2011

Old World Sparrows

It's a hard time of the year for birding. The woods, fields and meadows are mostly quiet except for the occasional cawing of crows. The other day walking along the CT River I heard the bright calls of a Winter Wren coming from a dense leafless thicket by the shore I searched for it and saw it suddenly pop out on a branch looking right at me as if to say "Well here I am. Where is your camera?" It was a life bird for me but stupidly I had left my  camera at home. 

Having just returned from Germany I decided to do a post on two species of old world sparrows, the lowly and despised House Sparrow, and the Eurasian Tree Sparrow. .

Most of you may be familiar with the misguided introduction into this country of the House Sparrow  by European settlers in the 19th century. Here is a nice summary:  

Only at the insistence of man did the House Sparrow make its way across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. In 1850, green inch-worms were destroying trees in New York City's Central Park. Many people thought that the House Sparrow's main diet back in England consisted of these same green worms and that if sparrows were brought to New York City they would solve the worm problem in Central Park. Others thought the House Sparrow would eliminate crop pests. While others theorized that the House Sparrow would eat grain out of horse manure (which was becoming a bigger problem as the city grew and the number of horses on the city's streets increased), which would help the manure decompose more rapidly. In addition, the new wave of immigrants who were forced out of Europe in the late 1850's because of economic and agricultural failures, missed the little birds they were accustomed to seeing in their native Europe. Steve Eno (Blue Birds across Nebraska)

A quick look at the bird's beak would convince any birder that its main diet is grains and seeds, not worms or other insect, which it feeds only to its young.  Due to its ubiquitous presence you'd think that the House Sparrow is the most common bird in Europe. Not true. In Great Britain it's in 4th place behind wren, chaffinch, robin and black bird.  Also it has actually been declining by 60% in urban environments,  such as London's city center where now it's almost absent. It's been placed on the red list

The Eurasian Tree Sparrow was less successful after its 19th century introduction in St Louis to enhance the local avifauna. Today it's mostly found in extreme eastern Missouri, west-central Illinois, and southeastern Iowa

I took these photos in the back of my grandfather's farm (now run by my cousin) in northern Germany. There the two species were strictly divided: House Sparrows in the ivy on the gable-side of the house and Tree Sparrows in the trees in back of the farm yard. 

Here is a side view of the old farm. My dad, age five or six,  is sitting on the horse. It's the same type of horse I learned to ride on when vacationing there in the summer. It is sad to think the people in this photo are all gone, my grandfather holding the horse that my father is sitting on, and my grandmother with my aunts, as well as a couple of other relatives that I don't recognize. That window over the door opened to a tiny guest room with two beds and a dresser, my room during my vacation. The thatched roof has been replaced with corrugated metal and the building turned into a stable and barn.

Back then....


I was just reading that John Vanderpoel of BigYear2011 started his search for the Eurasian Tree Sparrow from the Super 8 motel in Coralville, Iowa. I know that area well having spent ten years as student in Iowa City which lies directly on the other side of the Iowa River. But that was long before I did anything more than casual birdwatching.

I am ending this post on a nostalgic note. Tempus fugit. Memento mori. Time flies. Remember we must die.

Thanks for visiting and please leave a comment. Cheers!


  1. I have a large family of HouseSparrows that live in the eaves of our house.... they have a lovely charasmatic appeal when watching them in the garden

    The Tree Sparrow is a wonderful species, I get some on my local patch but they can be difficult to find in parts of the UK

    Nice post

  2. Great post Hilke.
    Yea, sadly both species of that once common bird is in sharp decline here. As a kid I remember seeing so many House and Tree Sparrows.

    A lovely old picture too.

  3. Not sure that we have them. Certainly not the Eursian Sparrow. Great post!! Boom & Gary of the Vermilon River, Canada.

  4. I think the house sparrows are quite nice. Especially in summer when you can se them bathing. That is really fun because tehy obviously enjoy it so much.

  5. A fantastic post Hilke so full of information and as usual your beautiful images.
    They are beautiful birds to see and thanks for sharing their decline in the UK.
    You have a depth of knowledge of wildlife from both sides of the Atlantic and I for one really appreciate it..

  6. Great photos. Those two sparrows were also introduced out here in Australia! The old photo is lovely. I like the final 'tag' - tempis fugit - and the older I get the faster it goes!!

  7. Beautiful photos of the sparrows and the old farm.
    Great post.

  8. This is a lovely post..yes, here I try to find ways not to feed the house sparrows because they are such a problem for our native species..Ironic that they are in decline in their native area...

  9. Very interesting post Hilke. I hadn't realised that House Sparrows were an introduced species over there. Makes up for you giving us the Grey Squirrel I suppose. Like Dave says, Tree Sparrows are now sadly rare in the UK although I spent a happy half hour watching a small flock of them today.

  10. A great post on the House Sparrow, Hilke! I really enjoyed the photos and the story. I have heard they can terrorize the bluebirds, one of the reasons bluebird lovers do not like to have the house sparrows around.

  11. Oh nostalgia, your great therapy for the tear ducts.
    I think we really see ourselves in the sparrow. They sure seem to speak to me of the human condition too. Like wayfaring immigrants living on the margins of society. Where have all the house sparrows gone? Long time passing...
    Great thought provoking post Hilke!

  12. An interesting post. I am always amazed at the variety of birds around the world.
    You picture reminds me of a faded old image Of a German farmhouse in which my great-grandmother was born. Thinking of those who have gone before, I realize that I am of the oldest generation now.

  13. Hi there - we have both species here in Melbourne - and neither of them should really be here! Having said that I can’t help but have a soft spot for them - they sound so familiar!

    Very nice post.

    Stewart M - Australia

  14. Wonderful post Hilke. I like the historic perspective on the species. Great shots from Germany. I know the house sparrow well, but never have seen the tree.


  15. Such an interesting post on sparrows. In fact I didn't know there were two kinds. We see a lot of house sparrows around our homes and gardens here. But I don't know much about birds but I'm so glad to meet a serious birder like you. Thank you for stopping by my blog.

    Love your photos. And thanks for sharing photos of the farm house.

  16. Although commonly seen here and despised by some, House Sparrows are very photogenic and have a certain charm. I love your photos of the farmhouse - it was a lovely country home.

  17. Hi there - glad you liked the "change" post - feel free to pass on the link to anybody who you think may be interested!

    Cheers - SM

  18. What an interesting post! I have yet to see the Eurasian tree sparrow. Love the old barn. Thanks for waxing nostalgic. It was fun!

  19. a friend sent me that book and due to my multiple scerlosis, I am strictly a back yard birder and a novice at that...I have tried to set up the feeders to exclude the HOSP and then they will use the thistle feeders..I have to admire their tenacity but the other non-native starlings are keeping wood ducks from nesting in our wood duck box...

    The thing about my friend is that she specialized in rehabbing bats and hummingbirds forever changing how I feel about bats. She really opened my eyes and I was changed forever...but she knew that...Michelle

  20. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments! Michelle of ramblingwoods, take a look at my post on bats.
    There is not going to be any reason to be afraid of them, because, sadly, they are not going to around for much longer


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