The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Nesting under a house eave, this house sparrow has chosen a
home location typical for the species for thousands of years.

Naturally Texas
The Never Ending War: House Sparrows And Your House
Terry Maxwell, April 20, 2003, San Angelo Standard Times, © 2003

For the first few years that Ann and I lived in our present home in an old, established neighborhood of San Angelo, we tolerated the house sparrow colony on our own and adjacent property. One or two nests were regularly occupied under the east eave of the house where utility line connections provided support. Other pairs of the colony nested across the alley.

We were a tad nervous about the bulky straw nests intermingled among all those lines, including those transmitting electricity, but complacency or rather resignation prevailed and we let them be. Last year, I decided to end their cohabitation with us, revealing foolish ignorance of the war ahead.

Both of the names of this true sparrow, native to the Old World, represent truth in advertising. House sparrows (the English name) indeed prefer nesting on houses or other buildings and erected structures and Passer domesticus (the Latin name) reveals their long and intimate association with man.

Anyway, I crawled up a ladder and with wooden sticks carefully tore down the nests. I did this thing when the nests were being newly refurbished for the start of the nesting season (usually March at our inland latitude), and harbored no eggs. Little did I know that this was only the opening skirmish.

Within hours, both a male and female were carrying straw to the site and by the next day a considerable beginning to a replacement nest was well established. A little reading on the natural history of this persistently successful commensal of man would have better prepared me for the coming battles.

Although there is considerable geographic variation in their pair-formation behavior, in many areas house sparrows pretty much mate for life. Unmated young males of a colony select a desirable, protected nest site, defend it and sing there in hopes of attracting a female. These nest sites become traditional ­ they are the focus of pair-formation and long-term pair-persistence.

After the completion of the nesting season, sexual urges subside and house sparrows form flocks and may move away to seasonally rich food sources ­ grain fields, livestock feeder lots, or, increasingly, backyard bird feeders in urban settings. But when those breeding urges return in late winter, old mates (who still recognize each other away from the nest), that remain alive, return to the original nest site.

My own experiences now confirm that those old nest sites mean something special to these birds. I tore down the second, third, and at least fourth attempts to rebuild under the eave of my house ­ all in the space of a few weeks. Finally, the war was won ­ by me ­ a representative member of an equally persistent species. But I can tell you one thing those birds did win ­ a healthy respect for stubbornness.

They will nest anywhere that people build structures. During my childhood, Mom fought them for years in our large tin barn that housed thousands of chickens. We thought their skin parasites (lice and mites) could be passed on to our chickens. A colleague mutters about them nesting under his carport roof.

The world authority on this species and its close relatives, J. Denis Summers-Smith, relates the most extraordinary house sparrow nesting site stories. In 1949, a pair nested on a house boat, never budging while it plied up and down the Nile River in Egypt. Another pair nested in a sweltering hot steel factory in Wales in the British Isles. In fact, this pair nested on what is called a coke oven ram machine. Coke is superheated coal, used to fuel the steel making, and there is no way to imagine the temperatures endured by these nesting house sparrows.

In 1968, in Kansas, were found several house sparrow nests on oil well pump jacks. The nests were on the structure that moves up and down ­ what I call horse head and some call a "nodding donkey." Apparently, the nests were not located out on the head end that moves through the greatest arc, but nonetheless were on a part of the machine that every 4 seconds moved up
and down about 2 feet. Good grief. How do they even feed babies under those conditions?

My local colony pairs have not attempted to nest on my house again, but we¹ve had other wars that they have won. I don't much attempt anymore to feed native birds in my yard ­ the house sparrows can clean out feeders within an hour.

But following a hearty engorgement on food somewhere in the neighborhood, they still rest on my deck railing, apparently finding the setting cathartic.

I finished this column on Sunday night last. Late Monday, I settled into a deck chair to render my initial sketch of the illustration you see here, fully expecting to draw an imaginary house sparrow nest in the old site. Well, no imagination was required ­ there's a new nest there. Alas, I must soldier on.


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