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Blane Klemek column: House sparrows are here to stay

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outdoors Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

While dining recently inside a fast-food restaurant, I happened to glance out the window I was sitting beside. My old truck, which was parked nearby, was suddenly the center of attention for a small flock of house sparrows. Their behavior was interesting enough for me to quit reading yet another newspaper article about Bret Favre.

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The sparrows, obviously accustomed to urban living, were attracted to my vehicle for the very reason I was drawn to the restaurant - food. The sparrows methodically investigated the truck's undercarriage, paying close attention to areas directly below the engine and radiator.

Some of the birds hopped up onto such places as the vehicle's axles and tie-rods where they were better able to reach insects and other tidbits that they evidently were searching for. A few birds momentarily disappeared further up underneath the hood, while other sparrows flew onto the bumper and picked and probed at insects stuck against the grill. I even observed one bird drinking liquid that had leaked onto the pavement.

"Such are the lives of city wildlife", I thought. Indeed, the lives of urban wildlife are often much different from those of their rural relatives. In some cases, life in town might be easier than life in the countryside. That said, not all creatures would survive in our towns and cities, but, on the other hand, many do quite well in urban settings.

It's no secret to most people that house sparrows, sometimes called English sparrows, are a non-native, European species of bird. House sparrows have thrived in North America ever since their 19th century release into several American cities. Today, house sparrows can be found from coast-to-coast in nearly every conceivable environment, both urban and rural.

With regard to this adaptable bird, house sparrows, which are really a species of finch, have learned to exploit the human-made dwellings and the food associated with our activities for their survival. This applies to both farm sparrows and city sparrows, each of which takes full advantage of what food, water, shelter and space available within these respective environments.

Just as house sparrows do on the farm, city sparrows also utilize buildings and other structures, including artificial nest boxes such as bluebird and purple martin houses, for both nesting and shelter. These communal species of birds typically nest and roost together in large, noisy flocks; their incessant and raucous chirps and call-notes, not especially musical, are a common and familiar bird and birdcall to people throughout the world, Minnesota included.

In rural towns, especially those with a strong farming community, and particularly those towns with active grain elevators and feed stores, house sparrows are omnipresent. As a farm boy myself, I remember many a trip to the feed store. From my memories of these delightfully dusty and pungent places, there wasn't a time that the non-migratory house sparrow wasn't a component of the whole experience.

House sparrows are not the tidiest of birds - a fact that hasn't endeared itself to very many people, if any at all. In cities, towns and farms, house sparrows desecrate places with their droppings and nesting debris when and where they congregate in large numbers - which of course is most of the time.

Nesting in every imaginable structural crevice, be it cracks and holes in masonry and siding, under the eaves of buildings, inside bird houses, within dense shrubbery and the like, it's no wonder that the resourceful house sparrow is as successful and reproductively prolific as it is.

What with few natural enemies sharing their urban environments, along with an abundance of habitat and food, not to mention their ability to withstand Minnesota's winter months, the house sparrow, like them or not, are hardy and adaptable birds.

Wherever house sparrows occur in their non-native, adopted homelands - which include southern Africa, eastern Australia, Canada, United States, Mexico, Central America, and South America - they are widely considered a pest. So much so that, for example, the bird is largely absent from the western half of Australia because of persistent control programs that work to prevent house sparrows from becoming established there.

In the United States, the house sparrow is one of only three species of birds that are not protected by law and can therefore be killed anytime. The other two species (non-natives as well) is the European starling and rock pigeon.

While it is true that the aggressive house sparrow is known to evict native birds from artificial nest boxes and, sometimes, for instance, even killing adult bluebirds, bluebird nestlings, and destroy bluebird eggs in order to occupy the nest cavities for themselves, recent population trends from Breeding Bird Survey data suggests slight population declines, particularly rural house sparrow populations.

The reason for this decline follows the general reduction of small farms and livestock. Additionally, the widespread use of pesticides and overall increase in farming efficacy (less grain waste, less weed seeds, no-till farming practices, etc.), are also thought to be factors that negatively impact house sparrows and house sparrow populations.

Even so, from approximately 50 pairs of house sparrows released into the United States in the mid-1800s, house sparrows reproduced, expanded their range, and quickly established themselves as one of the most abundant species of birds in North America. By the 1940s the house sparrow population was estimated at 150 million individual birds.

Without question, the house sparrow is here to stay. The non-native bird, while now a permanent resident here in Minnesota and beyond, has indeed affirmed its place on the landscape, be it town or country, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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