16 August 2005

House Sparrow Eats Moth

For the second time this summer, I saw a house sparrow going after and wrestling with a large moth. I thought that sparrows--with their seed-cracking bills--stuck to grain, but a little Internet research reveals:
[t]he House Sparrow's diet is diverse: seeds, nuts, berries, buds, insects, scraps.
Still, I had never thought of the house sparrow as a hunting-type critter, but rather a scavenger.

I was pleased to find this British fact sheet about the first bird I ever watched. When I lived in Seattle and worked for an engineering firm, I'd take breaks in a little park beside my downtown office building. A host of little brown birds chattered away in the park's manicured bushes and--seeing them day after day--I became fascinated (probably because I was unhappy in my job, and the sparrows seemed so busy and content). That Christmas Victor presented me with a field guide, and after several days of study I managed to figure out that the little brown birds I'd been watching for months were house sparrows.

Because it's a nonnative species, most U.S. information on the house sparrow is pejorative. I remember being outraged the first time I came across a field guide description of female and immature house sparrows as "streaked dull brown above, dingy white below..." (National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region). The same volume goes on to note the species' "shrill, monotonous, noisy chirping." The supposedly scientific Cornell Lab of Ornithology refers to the female as "dingy brown all over." In Peter Mattheissen's otherwise splendid--if grim--polemic Wildlife in America, house sparrows are taken to task both for their repetitive song and for their habit of foraging in horse manure.

The Brits, on the other hand, take a more objective stance, referring to the female house sparrow as:
...paler and lack[ing] the grey crown, white cheeks, black bib and eye stripe, and chestnut brown nape [of the male].
Sparrow song is described as "Non-stop cheeping and chirping."

(A far cry from "shrill, monotonous," and "noisy.")

But then, house sparrow populations in North America are huge and getting huger; these birds are variously blamed for crop depredations and declines in native songbird species. In Britain, the house sparrow is itself inexplicably declining (by more than 60 percent in the past 30 years).

Funny how this bird can prosper so in strange lands while dwindling in its native territories. Maybe we should release representatives our own troubled native species--bluebirds, owls, woodpeckers--overseas, see if they can do as well.

Filed in:

No comments: