January 31, 2009 in City

We’re having house sparrows over for dinner

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A bird-related argument is raging at our house – and probably at homes all over the Inland Northwest.

One person in our house believes that if she doesn’t keep the bird-feeder full at all times, our precious feathered friends will starve in the Snow-kane winter and die.

The other person, as in, me, CAN’T STAND THE THOUGHT OF FEEDING ONE MORE BLASTED HOUSE SPARROW.

I’m not opposed, in theory, to feeding “birds,” as a class. The problem is that the vast majority of the greedy beggars at our feeder are those annoying little house sparrows, aka English sparrows, aka (barnyard term that begins with an “s”) sparrows.

House sparrows are those obnoxious little imports from Europe, those little urban rat-birds, the dingy brown ones with the black bibs that you see in every alley, pecking away at old Burger King wrappers. If you still can’t place them, come over to my house. You’ll see them lined up in groups of nine at our feeder, elbowing the cute chickadees and nuthatches out of the way.

So we’ve been going through bag after bag of bird seed – and let me tell you, the price of bird seed ain’t chicken-feed. And to what purpose? To sustain the local house sparrow population, which appears to be in absolutely no danger of crashing?

In the charred rubble of the post-nuclear world, only two things will survive: blue-green algae and the house sparrow, pecking eagerly at an old french fry.

I’m a bird lover. I really am. Still, it’s OK with me if a few house sparrows go claws-up this winter. It’ll give the other birds more room.

My wife, Carol, says that all of God’s creatures are equally deserving. This makes her a better person – but that’s totally beside the point.

To help solve this argument, I decided to talk to some experts and put the question to them: Should we feed the local house sparrow population or not?

An officer of the Spokane Audubon Society wisely declined to become involved in our domestic dispute, saying that there are “pros and cons.” But when I got him off the record and asked him whether he, personally, feeds house sparrows, he said, “No! ’Cause there’s too many of ’em.”

Aha. Just as I suspected.

Then I asked my friend Jack Nisbet, the Spokane naturalist, writer and historian. He said he refuses to feed house sparrows because they “are non-native birds that displace other birds.”

Take that, you winged interlopers. The house sparrow was released in Central Park in the 1850s and has now overrun the entire continent.

Then I called Gary Blevins, a Spokane Falls Community College biology prof and bird expert. He said house sparrow populations are actually declining nationwide and have plummeted dangerously in Europe.

What? Has there been a related decline in their natural habitat, the Dumpster? Anyway he had no objection to feeding them.

Score one for Carol. Although the prof did say the local population is doing just fine.

Then, in one flash of wings, the whole debate was turned upside down. I was watching the bird feeder the other day when a brown streak slashed past the bird feeder, wheeled and landed beneath it.

It was a sharp-shinned hawk. In its talons was a house sparrow. For the next 20 minutes, it proceeded to tear that sparrow to shreds and consume everything but the feathers. It was exceedingly cool.

The hawk has since returned a couple of times and committed further acts of sparrow-cide.

So now, I have changed my position. I fully support setting out bird seed. I still don’t like feeding house sparrows. But I sure enjoy feeding sharp-shinned hawks.

Jim Kershner can be reached at (509) 459-5493 or by e-mail at jimk@spokesman.com.

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