Posts Tagged ‘House Sparrow’

Birding Interruptions

February 22, 2010

Lesser Goldfinch

Interruptions abound as I try to write a blog post today. It’s snowy and rainy here, but that didn’t stop the White-crowned Sparrows from bathing in the bird-bath out front. That required several minutes of my attention and everyone knows that even a short interruption breaks the smooth flow of words from a writer. (Writers are very sensitive.) And when a White-crowned Sparrow bathes, attention must be paid. All those contortions and wing flapping and water spraying demand it.

Not long after that, I was gazing out the window – turning over a fine phrase in my mind; getting it just right – when I saw a male House Sparrow flip a female on her back and hold her down. I had never seen anything like that before. The female screamed at him and he pecked at her and we’re all glad I couldn’t translate what she was saying.  The whole affair only lasted three or four seconds, but probably cost me half an hour of good writing time. That fine phrase was gone like a shooting star, never to be seen by mortals.

Lesser Goldfinch

Then some Lesser Goldfinches arrived. Because they are the first of the year, I had to watch them.  One can’t just ignore the changing of the seasons. Strictly speaking, the goldfinches aren’t changing the season, of course, but they signify that this winter of gray days and gray humours will pass eventually. (That male House Finch on top of the feeder is getting ready for spring too.)

After that I returned with a will to the blog post I started so many hours ago.

But then I made a mistake. I logged on to the internet to check my email. My first discovery there was a long article by writers on the rules writers should follow. One of them was, “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”

Then I discovered that astronomers have concluded that more than one kind of Type 1a supernovae exist. It turns out that white dwarf stars that explode into supernovae probably blow up when they collide, not by slowly stealing gas from their neighbors until they reach critical mass. A short little video animation accompanies the article, showing exactly how this happens. Watching it makes you dizzy.

That was the end of the blog post. Type 1a supernovae are what we use to measure the size of the universe and if they explode because they collide instead of just getting too massive – well, you can see the problems that creates for anybody trying to write a blog post about birds.

Birds and Taxes

April 13, 2009
Elegant Trogan

Elegant Trogan

Absent some almost inconceivable catastrophe, humanity has made its choice: We’re going to live in cities. The advantages of living close together in large groups appears to outweigh the benefits of country life.  In most, if not all, of the developed world more people now live in cities than in rural areas.  We’ve been headed this direction since the invention of the plow.  Dividing and specializing our labor is how we’ve adapted and made it this far.

And, let’s face it: Living in a house or an apartment is a lot more comfortable than living in a cave.

As we’ve moved to cities, we’ve romanticized the country life we left behind.  The more wilderness we’ve lost, the more we’ve come to miss it.

The reason for this is not hard to spot.  The bargain we’ve made for all the advantages of city life brought stressors.  Noise, light pollution, air pollution, urban sprawl; all cut us off from nature.  But the benefits of communal life are undeniable.  In the words of the Constitution of the United States, we band together to provide for domestic tranquility, common defense, the general welfare, justice, and the blessings of liberty. To pay for all that; the highways, the police, the military, health care, education, and all the rest, we invented taxes.


Here in the United States of North America many of us are at sea in an ocean of paperwork as we prepare our tax returns due this week.  This too, no matter how much we hate it, is an evolutionary adaptation.  We don’t like it, but we endure it because the benefits outweigh the losses.

And one of the losses is the less stressful, less work-filled existence of earlier, simpler times.  It’s why we take vacations. It’s why more of us now watch birds than shoot them.

House Sparrow

House Sparrow

So, take a short break.  Get outside and find a tree.  No matter how crowded your city, you will likely discover a bird in it.  Probably it’s a House Sparrow.  No matter; a House Sparrow is as beautiful in its perfection as a Trogan is in his.  This time of the year, that bird is likely to be singing. Take a few precious moments to watch, to listen, to breathe.

That is an evolutionary adaption too. You will hear those older, wilder rhythms and be refreshed.


UPDATE: Natalie Angier of the New York Times wrote about taxes two days after this post.  Not only has every human society we know of taxed its members in return for admission to the group; many animal species do also, including at least two bird species.

The photograph of the Elegant Trogan was made by Dominic Sherony and came via Wikipedia.

St. Dominic and the Sparrow

January 22, 2009
Male House Sparrow

Male House Sparrow

House sparrows, like pigeons have a bad reputation. They are often reviled because there are so many of them around human habitations.  Like pigeons, they are synanthropic, meaning that they do well when living in close proximity with humans.  If you build a city, they will come.  Native to Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia, they are an invasive species in the Americas.  100 were released in Brooklyn in the 19th Century and they spread almost immediately to most temperate habitats in North America.

We’ve written before about what Chairman Mao thought of them.

They will drive you nuts if you live in bluebird habitat.They drive bluebirds out of their nests with regularity and, so far, no one has devised a bluebird house that is also sparrow proof, although we will test a new design this Spring as soon as the bluebirds return. The sparrows never leave.

St. Dominic

St. Dominic

Their reputation today is not as bad as it was in the days of St. Dominic.  Saint Dominic, you will remember, was the founder of the Dominican Order in 1217.  He preached and lived in voluntary poverty, his followers exhorted to live and behave with charity and humility.  Rumors about his involvement as an inquisitor in the first medieval Inquisition have never been established.  And even if he was one, he died in 1221, thirty years before Pope Innocent IV got around to authorizing torture in 1252.  (In his defense, Pope Innocent did not allow torture methods which resulted in bloodshed, mutilation or death.)

St. Dominic didn’t trust sparrows.

Readers with a faint heart will want to skip the next paragraph. St. Dominic may not have tortured humans but sparrows were a different story.

According to the blessed Cecilia, who knew him personally and preserved her memories of him when she was in her nineties, St. Dominic once was preaching to the sisters — from behind a grille —  in a convent, warning them against the Devil, who could take the shapes of animals at will, just to deceive pious Christians.  A sparrow suddenly flew into the chapel and hopped on the head of a sister.  She grabbed it at Dominic’s command and handed it to him.  Holding it in one hand Dominic commenced to pluck the feathers from the living bird, yelling that it was the Devil which had come to interrupt his sermon.  People in those days saw the Devil often and in myriad costumes. The bird screamed in pain as it was plucked alive. When Dominic finished plucking it, he pitched the poor bird, still alive, out the window telling it to fly if it could.  “Fly now if you can, enemy of mankind! you can cry out and trouble us, but you can’t hurt us!”

So, take pity on the lowly sparrow. They really can’t hurt us.

House Sparrow feeding a fledgling

House Sparrow feeding a fledgling


This is not the only story told about Satan as a bird.  Here is another.

The Great Sparrow Wars

July 14, 2008

Chairman Mao was not the world’s finest naturalist. But he was a man of action. Thinking that four kinds of pests were hindering his “Great Leap Forward” he decided to eradicate them all. Rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows all had to go. Sparrows earned Mao’s enmity because they eat grain and grain seeds and so, Mao thought, disrupted Chinese agriculture. He declared war on sparrows. Literally. He said: “Here is the method — we make our resolution, we coordinate our actions, we divide our tasks, we cut off the food supply, we set up a trap and we continue our battle of destruction.”

Chinese Poster of The Great Sparrow War

Chinese Poster of The Great Sparrow War

From a Shanghai newspaper, December 13, 1958:

“The Whole City Is Attacking the Sparrows.”

” “On the early morning of December 13, the citywide battle to destroy the sparrows began. In large and small streets, red flags were waving. On the buildings and in the courtyards, open spaces, roads and rural farm fields, there were numerous scarecrows, sentries, elementary and middle school students, government office employees, factory workers, farmers and People’s Liberation Army shouting their war cries. . . .In the city and the outskirts, almost half of the labor force was mobilized into the anti-sparrow army. Usually, the young people were responsible for trapping, poisoning and attacking the sparrows while the old people and the children kept sentry watch. The factories in the city committed themselves into the war effort even as they guaranteed that they would maintain production levels. . . .150 free-fire zones were set up for shooting the sparrows. The Nanyang Girls Middle School rifle team received training in the techniques of shooting birds. Thus the citizens fought a total war against the sparrows. By 8pm tonight, it is estimated that a total of 194,432 sparrows have been killed.”

All over China people were banging pots and pans, waving flags and disrupting the lives of sparrows. Sparrow nests were torn down, eggs broken, sparrows and their nestlings killed by the millions. Literally. The People’s Daily exhorted the citizenry, “No warrior shall be withdrawn until the battle is won. All must join battle ardently and courageously; we must persevere with the doggedness of revolutionaries.” Radio Peking played an anthem, “Arise, arise, Oh millions with one heart; braving the enemy’s fire, march on.”

Nobody knows how many sparrows died but the number was in the millions.

Initially, the harvests improved, but too many sparrows were killed. Not enough survived to keep the locusts and grasshoppers in ecological balance. The insects devoured Chinese crops. In the resulting famine more than 35,000,000 people died of starvation.

The Great Sparrow War was over. Mao declared victory and called the whole thing off.

Mostly, the Chinese were killing Tree Sparrows, close relatives of House Sparrows. Tree Sparrows and humans probably started associating with one another about 10,000 years before Mao. It was around that time that humans in the Yellow River Valley began rice farming. It was also when people in the fertile crescent of the Middle East switched from hunting and gathering to farming wheat. What we now call House Sparrows in North America and English Sparrows in Northern Europe began living with those humans about that time. Sparrows and humans have been together ever since. BNA declares, “. . .a sparse population of House Sparrows largely indicates a sparse population of humans.” Said differently, where there are a lot of humans, there will be a lot of sparrows.

The Chinese aren’t the only ones who have tried to kill sparrows off. Mao should have studied North America’s history of trying to eradicate House Sparrows. He would have saved himself a lot of trouble and the crops might not have failed, at least not as catastrophically as they did.

House Sparrows did not live on the North American continent until the mid 1850s when some enterprising, ignorant people imported 100 of them from England to New York City. Helped along by organizations such as the “Cincinnati Acclimatization Society” which thought that the, “enobling influence of the song of birds will be felt by the inhabitants,” the sparrows spread. The sparrows were so successful that an Indiana newspaper declared in 1883, “Let them all be killed.”

We’ll be back with the rest of that tale.

%d bloggers like this: