There are over three dozen species of sparrows and roughly 75 percent of them can be found in North Carolina. Most inhabit open areas with a few trees. Some have distinctive calls. However, there is one sparrow never found truly in the wild, and that’s the house sparrow, commonly called the English sparrow.
House sparrows originated from the middle east. From there, they moved to Europe and Asia. Eventually, many stowed away on boats to the Americas, Australia and many other places.
House sparrows only live in places inhabited by people. Be it in cities, suburbs or farms, there is always one constant. People are nearby. Humans give them protection without realizing it.
Most bird watchers or casual feeders of birds don’t particularly like these squatters eating the feed meant for other songbirds. However, people don’t often hunt sparrows down and kill them either. Consequently, over hundreds of years, these birds have lost most of their fear of humans and are comfortable within a few yards of them.
That’s not true of many predators of these house sparrows. Hawks, foxes and other predators will not often venture that close to humans, so essentially sparrows use people as a shield from predators. Some will fall prey to cats, but there are still far fewer predators for them to worry about. Even feral cats usually won’t venture as close to people as sparrows will.
In town, sparrows eat discarded food, birdseed and pet food, but they also eat weed seeds and insects. They will even follow lawnmowers to get bugs stirred up by them. On farms they eat grain, livestock feed, flies on and around livestock and various weed seeds.
As these birds gain familiarity with individual people, they often can be trained to eat out of one’s hand. This is especially true in winter when food is scarce. When I was growing up, I remember several times after big snowstorms I could entice them to perch on my finger. I was sitting in the driveway grilling trout and eating crackers one summer evening, and I coaxed one to perch on my finger. I think I still have some pictures of that.
House sparrows prefer to build their nests in human-constructed structures with openings they can pass through. Streetlights, roof overhangs and vines growing on buildings make great nesting sites. Sometimes they build nests in shade trees or shrubbery near homes. They usually recycle their nests, too.
They are prolific breeders. Females lay up to eight eggs per clutch, and they often raise four broods per year. Eggs take a little less than two weeks to hatch.
Like chickens, sparrows develop a pecking order and are quite territorial. I was waiting at a local fast-food drive-through and watched several sparrows scavenge for scraps. It was obvious which ones were dominant and which ones had to wait their turn. The darker colored birds appeared to be the most aggressive.
Except for domesticated animals, we don’t always think about how one species relies on another. People generally don’t purposely feed sparrows, nor do we want them nesting in or near our homes. Still, they do it anyway and aren’t overly obnoxious, so they get away with it.
This little bird was hungry and trusting.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.