Thursday, October 27, 2011


While looking up information on how to convert nesting boxes to winter roosting boxes, I was reminded of an unsettling phenomenon that seems to occur amongst certain circles of bird lovers in the U.S., particularly bluebird lovers.

Some of them kill birds on purpose.

Not bluebirds, of course, but common house sparrows. Following human civilization's spread from the Mediterranean to Europe to the entire world, house sparrows, (Passer domesticus) are known to even the most hardened city-dwellers, their chirps echoing in parks and streets as they hop after french fries and other dropped bits of food.

So why kill them? The reasoning goes like this: bluebirds are a declining native species, therefore citizens must put up nesting boxes to encourage them to breed more. Since other birds may use the boxes as well, they must be vigilantly discouraged from doing so; and since house sparrows are non-native and seemingly numerous, they must be eliminated.

This can be done in a variety of ways. Needling or oiling eggs, trapping, and shooting seem to be acceptable methods of culling. Some advocate throwing them roughly to the ground, or else gassing them with car exhaust. “They're rats with wings!” is the general outcry, “Once you see a bluebird mangled to a bloody pulp by an aggressive HOSP *, you'll change your mind.”

Never mind the fact that these urban sparrows are merely taking advantage of an ever-increasing urban environment that people have created, or the fact that most people in the U.S. are non-natives, themselves. No. The blame must be conveniently pinned on the "HOSPs".

All I can say is, we must be very, very careful when picking and choosing which species is “good” and which is “bad.” – and even more careful when deciding which ones to control. We humans might have the gift of intelligent foresight, but even we cannot see all ends. Historically, the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet had bustling, thriving populations numbering in the millions; yet within a short period of time they were systematically removed from existence.

Like them or not, house sparrows, starlings, grackles and other undesirable species have a role to fulfill, a particular ecological niche that nothing else can replace. Yes, they are dull and drab. Yes, they can be aggressive. But instead of vilifying them for natural behaviors and actively seeking their demise (occasionally killing non-target species in the process) why not lobby for more open space and wilderness areas? Why not work to educate the public to remove less dead trees, use less pesticides, and keep felines indoors?

In their native England, it was recently reported that house sparrow numbers declined a startling 65% from 1977 to 2000 – so much of a decline, that they have been put on the UK's “red list” for conservation. No one knows why they are disappearing. I suspect that some in the U.S. might secretly rejoice at this news; but perhaps it will serve as wake-up call to those who claim to dislike killing sparrows but do so in the sincere belief that they are helping bluebirds. If we truly care, we must be vigilant for ALL birds' welfare, no matter how dull or common or alien...or unlovable.

(*"HOSP" is their abbreviation for house sparrow. I can only surmise it makes it easier to kill something by giving it an impersonal label.)


Linda Lawler said...

Thanks Laura for your informative posting about the BIRD NAZIS. It sickens me that people can be so ignorant. ALL LIFE is sacred, even the lowly snake or ant.


Rose Altom said...

My passion is drawing birds, and my favorites are the house finches, starlings and magpies. I cant imagine killing these delicate creatures. Thank you for the info..

Laura G. Young said...

Hi Linda -- Yes, all forms of life are indeed special. Incidentally, it's not the culling that prompted me to write about this topic, but the disturbing disconnect that some people have that certain birds are worth saving at the expense of others. (That, and the idea that we can somehow restore the biome to near-pristine condition, when it's been irrevocably altered for centuries.) No amount of bird management is going to change the fact that bird species are declining all over the world. Even sparrows. Killing a few of the so-called invasive species may appear to help the native bird populations, but in the long run, even "tough-as-nails" species will perish if we don't address the bigger issue of habitat loss.

Rose -- It's good to know that there are others who find a place in their heart for birds that so many disregard as worthless.