Be Your Own Birder

Celebrate – It’s World Sparrow Day!

March 20 is a very special day – not only is it the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere, but it is also World Sparrow Day, a day to celebrate house sparrows.

House Sparrow

House Sparrow – Photo by David Merrett

At first thought, many birders in North America might be startled – why celebrate house sparrows? They’re invasive, they take over feeders and birdhouses, they are messy eaters and can be bullies in the yard. I won’t deny those things can be true, but if you know the whole history of these birds, you might feel somewhat different about them.

The house sparrow, also called the English sparrow or European sparrow, evolved in the Mediterranean region thousands of years ago. As human civilizations spread across Europe, so did house sparrows, and even today they are rarely found away from human habitation.

House sparrows were first introduced to North America when a few dozen birds were released in Brooklyn, New York, in the fall of 1851 and spring of 1852. Gradually the population grew and was augmented by additional releases because settlers believed these birds would help control insects on crops. Over the next few decades, additional birds were released in different places.

  • Portland, Maine: 1854-1858
  • Hawaii: 1871
  • San Francisco, California: 1871-1872
  • Brazil: 1872
  • Salt Lake City, Utah: 1873-1874
  • Bahamas: 1875

Unfortunately, it wasn’t realized at first that house sparrows only eat insects when their nestlings are very young, and during the rest of the year the birds fed on the very grain crops they had been imported to protect.

Here, it is important to reflect on the fact that house sparrows didn’t import themselves anywhere – they were captured and forcibly relocated to new and unfamiliar habitats. The intentions may have been benign, but it isn’t the birds’ fault that they were brought to new places then released to fend for themselves. They only did what was natural, what they’d adapted over centuries to do. To our own chagrin, they did so very successfully.

As early as 1883, wildlife conservationists were urging people to help eradicate house sparrow populations through trapping and killing the birds, and bounties were even offered on dead house sparrows. While recipe books no longer print sparrow dishes and contests aren’t held to reward winners for killing the most house sparrows, lack of protection for these birds in many areas is having an effect, and these birds are no longer as abundant as they once were. The problem is, however, that many control techniques are effective not only in North America, but also in house sparrows’ native range, and their populations are declining drastically.

This is more unfortunate than it may seem. As cities continue to grow and urban populations expand, fewer people have the opportunity to go birding and see many different species in forests, meadows or other natural habitats. Because house sparrows thrive in cities, they may be the first birds many people have experience with, and when these birds are automatically defiled, that can create a bad impression of all birds. World Sparrow Day

That’s where World Sparrow Day comes in. This movement aims to raise awareness of the plight of house sparrows, and offers tips and ideas for how to welcome these birds back to the yards, gardens and ranges where they first evolved. This is critical because house sparrows can be key indicators of our own urban habitats and the effects of pollution and environmental degradation that can affect us just as much as the birds.

Today, the house sparrow can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Despite that abundance, however, dislike of the house sparrow’s aggression toward native species has made it one of the world’s least popular species, and the birds face many threats. While there are still hundreds of millions of house sparrows successfully foraging in cities and towns around the world, it is possible that one day these birds may become threatened or endangered. By understanding the house sparrow’s long and adaptive history, birders can better appreciate the hardiness of this species and work to manage its population without eradicating it entirely from areas where it is one of the most familiar birds. Let’s all fill a feeder, clean a bird bath and otherwise do something nice for house sparrows to celebrate World Sparrow Day!

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