Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Songs from the City

Not exactly what you expected?   Well, there’s a story or two here.   You know how I always encourage people to “keep listening?”  I had to take my own advice less than two weeks ago when I was spending too much time indoors and not enough field time out in the cold as I tried to recover from a respiratory illness that was jeopardizing my ability to sing my December rehearsals and concerts. 

When I couldn’t stand being inside, I’d take my camera or recording equipment out in the driveway and backyard for a little while.  Our house is in an old, inner-ring suburb of Cleveland.  We get some “good birds” here, especially as we have done lot of work to create good habitat for them.  But it’s the city, and the so-called “good” birds aren’t all we get.  

House Sparrows are a fact of life for urban residents, and it’s important to remember that in some areas there is very little species diversity.   One can count on House Sparrows, Robins, Starlings and Rock Pigeons just about anywhere, but there may not be many other birds present.   These four species compete with all kinds of urban noise, as you heard in the unedited recording above.  There was some wind in the trees, but the noise was primarily nonstop traffic from the nearby main street.   House Sparrows also call over planes, sirens, trains, and more.    

Here’s another recording of this flock, but this time I’ve edited out the traffic as best I can.  Now you'll get a better sense of just how many birds are talking at once!

We may think we know House Sparrows when we hear them, but it’s partly a question of context.  People don’t always recognize them when they see them – and especially when they hear them – outside of their expected area.  Their repertoire is also broader than many people realize.   Since these species will be around us anyway, why not study what they're doing and listen to what they're saying – especially while we wait for our native birds to begin their spring songs?

For example, this is how a singing House Sparrow sounds - rather like a series of calls instead of a lovely melody.  However, I've often seen the word "cheerful" used to describe their songs and calls in their countries of origin.  

Here are two different kinds of short, emphatic calls and a “churr-churr-churr” call from the back yard flock.  Can you pick out three distinct kinds of calls?

The next recording was made at the Holden Arboretum’s butterfly garden, where a small group of House Sparrows was hanging out near some Tree Sparrows, House Finches, and Goldfinches instead of at a fast food restaurant or some back yard bird feeders.

I must confess, the crowd in the back yard is pretty entertaining to observe. The most amusing moment recently occurred when a European Starling showed up at a hanging feeder frequented by House Sparrows.  When the sparrows saw the Starling raiding their seeds, they repeatedly pulled its tail feathers with their bills until it left!  And then there's always the birdbath, of course...

Like you, I am deeply disturbed every time I find House Sparrows in a Bluebird box or challenging – even killing - a native bird species for a nest cavity.  I’m also aware that it’s not the House Sparrows’ fault that they are here creating trouble for our native birds.  After all, who brought them to this country?  

According to Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” web site, House Sparrows are native to Europe, the Mediterranean, and much of Asia.  They were introduced to Brooklyn, New York, in 1851 with subsequent introductions in San Francisco and Salt Lake City in the 1870s.  They are now found across the US and Canada except for northern Canada and Alaska.  Their additional introductions to New Zealand, Australia, Africa, and parts of South America have made them the most widely-distributed wild bird in the world. 

In the Kaufman Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Kenn Kaufman writes, “This resourceful, spunky bird, adapted to living around humans, thrives even in our biggest cities.  Unpopular with some people (partly because it may compete with native birds), this sparrow is undeniably interesting to watch, and it adds a spark of life to urban settings that would be almost birdless without it.”  

The students who watch the birds on our classroom window ledge simply enjoy them as birds, and I can't help but smile at the welcome I receive when these urban sparrows fly all around me as I walk toward the classroom building early each morning, bird seed in hand.

House Sparrows are warmly appreciated in their native Great Britain, where there is great concern about the recent drop in House Sparrow numbers.  Birds.com says, “The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is known the world over for its gregarious, lively behavior.  A master of adaptation and a great opportunist, this remarkable little bird has gone on to colonize countries the world over.   Despite its longstanding relationship with urban man, House Sparrows have sadly been declining in numbers even being added to the Red List in the UK.   In recent years conservationists in some parts of the world, including the United Kingdom and India, have been drawing attention to the fact that the numbers of these cheerful little birds have been dwindling, with no clear indication as to why this is the case. In order to alert the public to the plight of the Sparrow, as well as to enlist public support and participation in counteracting this trend, conservationists in London and India have joined forces to create World Sparrow Day.”  The first World Sparrow Day was in 2010, and the date this coming year is March 20th.

While every day could be World Sparrow Day at our backyard feeders in the winter, I still intend to pay more attention to their conversations here and elsewhere in the city.  House Sparrows are more like us than we may care to admit, and I expect they will continue to live wherever we congregate.  I think we're stuck with each other!   


  1. Very nice account, Lisa. I especially like the diversity of calls and songs you explained. Sounds like you have plenty of house sparrows in your area. Though I have no quantitative data (probably could get a good one from Christmas counts), I am pretty sure I am encountering fewer house sparrows than I did 15 years ago in the Chicago suburbs.

  2. Thank you. What I've noticed here in Cleveland was that House Sparrow numbers dropped quite a bit when we had a lot of House Finches about 15 years ago. House Finch numbers have stabilized at significant lower numbers now, and there are the usual numbers of House Sparrows again.