The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, April 13, 2003


Naturally Texas
True Sparrows Are The Most Successful Birds On Earth
Terry Maxwell, April 13, 2003 , San Angelo Standard Times, © 2003

How does a student of birds spell success? Surely one way is Passer - a genus of birds native to the Old World but now found just about all over the planet. They belong in the bird family Passeridae – the sparrows. Now, it’s about here that the problems begin with today’s subject.

My budding students of ornithology begin field study by wanting to place all small birds that are not bright blue, yellow, or red into the category of sparrow. In their defense, even professional ornithologists newly encountering small seed-eating birds, couldn’t resist calling them sparrows. Many of our New World buntings (family Emberizidae) are listed as sparrows. And the name is
venerable, extending back through Old English "speerwa" to the more ancient Aryan "spar", meaning to flutter.

But our subject today is limited to the genus Passer in Passeridae, the so-called true sparrows. They number about 20 species. Among them are 13 that the authority J. Denis Summers-Smith called the "black-bibbed sparrows." The males have black on the throat often extending to the chest or upper breast.

The family’s probable origin is in tropical Africa, where there is more variety found today than in any other location. The likely ancestral habitat, and one still favored, is the edge between savannah and woodland. They are mainly ground feeders on seeds, but are naturally tree nesters in contrast to many of our New World bunting-sparrows that are ground nesters.

At least six of these black-bibbed sparrows have the habit of closely associating with the most successful species on earth – humans. They are today true commensals with man. Another two of them, at least occasionally, nest under the eaves of buildings.

One of the commensals, the house sparrow (Passer domesticus), was helped across the Atlantic, opening up a whole new hemisphere to the true sparrows. But long before that event in the mid-19th century, this species was on the move.

Summers-Smith describes the early association between house sparrows and sedentary man and his grain crops. He argued that from a Mediterranean ancestral home 5000 years ago, house sparrows moved north into Europe and were in the British Isles by Roman times.

By 1800 the species had spread east to the steppe grasslands of old Russia and to the Malay Peninsula east of India. Whatever else you may think of them, their success at living off our bounty has been a ticket to the world. They have even been known to colonize far northern locations too harsh in winter for their existence, by living inside buildings, such as cattle barns in Norway.

House sparrows seem best adapted to temperate and somewhat dry climates. In those conditions, the species is seen more away from buildings and out some distance into the countryside.

But it is their resounding success at living with us that amazes. They have been seen feeding on an observation floor of New York’s Empire State Building – 80 floors up. They live, totally, inside many major airport terminals. Some lived and even successfully nested 2000 feet below ground in an English coal mine where they were fed by the miners.

House sparrows were introduced successfully to North America in 1852 and Texas specifically in 1867 in Galveston. William Lloyd did not report them in the Concho Valley in his 1887 publication, but 20 years later, Vernon Bailey found them to be common in San Angelo, Colorado City, and Big Spring.

It’s not a popular thing to describe this pest bird as successful, but biological success is not constrained by niceties. Many a bacterium functioning as an agent of disease is quite successful in any measure of that term. And so as well is Passer domesticus, now perhaps the most widespread bird species on earth.

One of the well-known bird researchers of the lower Great Plains is Richard Johnston of The University of Kansas. Johnston published some 13 research papers on this reviled bird in the 1960s and 70s, some of which I want to share with you in the future.

But I tell you now about Dick Johnston because I have a vivid memory of the man at a science gathering a couple of decades back. He wore a T-shirt emblazoned with an illustration of the house sparrow and labeled "Sparrow Power."

Johnston knows full well how to spell success.

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