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ALWAYS IN SEASON/ MIKE JACOBS: Where have all the house sparrows gone?

Illustration by Mike Jacobs1 / 2
Mike Jacobs2 / 2

The other day, when I picked up my cup from the coffee maker that sits on the countertop next to the sliding glass deck door, I looked out and saw a house sparrow. It was the first one I'd seen at our place west of Gilby, N.D., since mid-August. This happened to coincide with a posting on the local birding listserv reporting the presence of house sparrows.

Suddenly, I realized that I miss seeing house sparrows. There's a big dose of nostalgia connected with these birds, which once were so common. They were with us year around on the farm where I grew up, nesting in crevasses revealed as the old house fell into ruin. I spent the first winter of my life in that house, but by spring, it was deemed too small for our growing family, and since the postwar years were good years for crop prices, my parents splurged and bought a larger house, which they had moved up from White Earth, N.D., about 20 miles away. The old house took on other roles; we called it "the garage," but it was really more of a farm shop. The family car remained outside; we brought the battery into the house on especially cold nights. Whatever its use to us might have been, the sparrows used it as a condominium.

House sparrows were never out of the ordinary in city neighborhoods, either. When we lived in Grand Forks, they were frequent visitors at the feeders behind our house in the Riverside neighborhood. I conspired to discourage them, mostly by putting out more feeders so that there would be enough seed for all of the birds, the desirables as well as the undesirables. In those days, I thought that house sparrows were undesirable birds, as most birders did.

On last year's Christmas Bird Count in Grand Forks, Dave Lambeth, the count leader and record keeper, encouraged us to be especially alert for house sparrows, and I tried to be. In four hours walking through my old neighborhood on the north side of Grand Forks, including the grounds of the mill and elevator, I found 12 house sparrows.

This was not a surprise; people alert to population trends have noticed a marked decline in the number of house sparrows, and this is not limited to Grand Forks. It first was reported in European cities. House sparrow populations in Prague and London plunged; a citywide census in London several years ago found a handful of sparrows. House sparrows have been part of London's bird life for centuries.

In Grand Forks and all of North America, house sparrows are relative newcomers. An eccentric immigrant thought it would be a good idea to bring all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare's works to North America. To him we owe the presence of European starlings and skylarks as well as house sparrows. The skylark never became well established; but house sparrows and starlings spread across the continent, showing up only a short time after European settlement. They've probably been in Grand Forks since the first grain elevator was built here sometime in the 1870s.

The annual bird count, held in December, showed a slight uptick in the number of house sparrows, to 399. This is a steep decline since the year 2000, when a total of 2,046 house sparrows were seen. The impact of the graph would be more dramatic if it were extended another two decades into the past; in the 1980s, yearly numbers of house sparrows sometimes reached five digits.

There's no shortage of theories about what's happened to the house sparrows. The best, I think, is that their food supply has failed, for two reasons. Horses, and their waste, are no longer ubiquitous in cities, and modern grain handling results in much less spillage, and so less forage for house sparrows. Another blames feral cats, which are peerless urban predators. Perhaps a combination of factors may have led to "colony collapse," in which populations may have fallen below the critical mass needed to maintain a social species like the house sparrow. Still another theory is that house sparrows lost a competition for nesting sites with house finches, another avian interloper here, although it is a North American native. This seems unlikely to me; the bird count figures show 169 house finches in 2000 and 150 in 2017.

Whatever the cause, the drastic decline has me pining for the days when these feisty — and pretty — little birds were part of my life every day.