The Fall of a Sparrow

January 15th, 2008

Is Passer domesticus the new canary?

by Sandra Steingraber
Published in the January/February 2008 issue of Orion magazine



They arrive uninvited, poor relations with little to recommend them and no plans to leave. Their motto: this’ll do. A hole or a crevice is fine for them. So are rafters, ivy, a streetlamp, a rain-gutter clip. In Kansas, they reside in the continuously bobbing heads of oil pumps. In Turkmenistan, they excavate loess banks. In the Arctic, they squat in railroad roundhouses. Found on six continents, they are the world’s most widely distributed bird. Urban or rural is immaterial to them. Except for this: they are never found more than four hundred meters from a human structure.



They are obligate commensals of Homo sapiens. Meaning they cannot live without us. They are our avian shadows. They are Ruth to our Naomi. Wherever you go, there shall I follow. Your home shall be mine. They have disembarked from our ships. They have traveled with us along the Trans-Amazonian Highway. In northern Finland, in South Africa, across all of Siberia and the Americas, in the Bahamas, the Azores, the Falklands, and Cape Verde, we cohabitate. No one recalls when the house sparrow gave up the habit of seasonal migration.



They did not arrive. They are as old as agriculture, having speciated at about the time we first threw seeds on the ground and settled down. Their fossils have been found in caves near Bethlehem in Palestine and atop Mount Carmel in Israel. It was Passer domesticus biblicus to which Jesus was referring when he asked, rhetorically, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?” They are the species God’s eye is on. They are believed to have spread to Europe in tandem with the horse. The answer is probably Iraq.



Mostly cereal grain and weed seeds. Preglossale is the name of the bone embedded in their tongues for husking. Stomach-content studies show a strong preference for millet over fescue. Catholic in their tastes, they switch to insects during the breeding season. They find dinner in the grillwork of automobiles. They rob spider webs. In Australia, they flutter before the electronic sensors of automatic doors and thereby gain entry into supermarkets. In Hawai’i, they gather on hotel balconies and await the emergence of honeymooning couples at breakfast hours. In Norwegian winters, they forage in total darkness. They are known to consume baby mice. They dislike eating alone.



Mostly chirrup, which the Germans hear as tshlip and the British as phip. Sonographs reveal other vocalizations not distinguishable to the human ear. Throughout the day, they gather in communal roosts and chatter, presumably about foraging routes.



Much of what we know about the effect of light-to-dark ratios on sexual maturation comes from experiments using house sparrows, which are not legally protected. For this, they have been hooded, blinded, caged in darkness, castrated, pinealectomized, and defeathered. Passer domesticus is the lab rat of the avian world.



He is retired biologist Ted R. Anderson, a man you might wish for your own father. Gregarious, curious, easygoing, Anderson hoped to land a research position after graduate school. Instead, he found himself employed at a teaching college in the soy fields of Illinois. He stayed on, raised a family, and studied sparrows. His life’s work is distilled into a 547-page monograph. Nine years in the writing, it brings together literature from all over the world, involves translations from the Russian, and contains elegantly drawn graphs accompanied by captions such as “Monthly Changes in the Mean Volume of the Left Testis of a House Sparrow in Iowa.” The book’s final paragraph is this: “As I watch live television news from Baghdad, Gaza, Jerusalem, or Kosovo and hear sparrows chirping in the background, I sometimes wonder what opinion, if any, the house sparrow has about the havoc wreaked by its human hosts.”



Males sport a black bib, or badge, that varies considerably in size among individuals. Why? Badge size does not predict dominance. It is not related to command of resources. It is not a function of size or health. Females show no preference for large- or small-badged males. If size matters to the house sparrow, it matters in ways not known to us.



Like the honeybee, the house sparrow is experiencing unexplained, catastrophic population collapses, including here in the Americas but especially among urban populations in Europe. Unlike honeybees, sparrows generate few headlines announcing their ongoing demise. In England and Ireland, the number of breeding pairs has declined by 30–50 percent over the past two decades, a loss of as many as 7 million birds. In some urban areas, losses approach 99 percent. Says Anderson, “Not since the Irish Potato Famine . . . have the British Isles witnessed such a major population decline.” A lowered survival rate among juveniles appears to be the problem. Newly emerging avian diseases? There is some evidence for this hypothesis from Europe. Global climate change? There is some evidence for this hypothesis from Israel. The sparrow is the new canary.



The spring my mother’s breast cancer returned, I found an injured sparrow on the concrete slab of the school bus stop. I took it home and fed it milk-soaked bits of bread. Eventually, it learned to fly—but never properly because its left leg jutted out at a right angle, so it would flutter around me in loopy circles. Finally, it died. I told my mother it had flown away.

In college, I studied ornithology. My English-major boyfriend, wanting to join me in the spirit of birding, called me to the window of our wretched apartment, excited about the wrens in the hedge. “Those are just house sparrows,” I shrugged. “They’re invasive. They take over bluebird boxes. They’re everywhere.”

I have begun searching for them in parking lots, around grain elevators and loading docks, among the landscaping at gas stations, along subway station stairwells, under freeway overpasses. Are these spaces more sparrowless than they used to be? Is there an inanimation among the dirt and dust where, formerly, dirt- and dust-colored inhabitants cocked their heads? Have I taken too little care of this?

On an unusually warm evening, I met a colleague in the courtyard of a downtown restaurant. We looked together at the latest breast cancer statistics. The ivy shivered with sparrows, and their incessant chirping made conversation difficult. An ashen feather fell into my wineglass.

I was happy, happy to receive it.