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Living Sanibel: House sparrow and European starling

By Staff | Mar 9, 2016

House sparrow. PHOTO BY BOB GRESS

House Sparrow

Birders can find a well-established flock of these imported sparrows at almost every supermarket and corner store in Southwest Florida. There, as in other urban settings, the sparrow flits about the grounds and spends most of the day foraging for insects, bread crumbs, and whatever else it can find in and around the parking lot. Well adapted to human beings, the house sparrow is another runaway import whose present-day population numbers in the hundreds of millions.

Originally introduced from England into New York City in 1850 and 1851, possibly by the same literary group that brought the European starling over, this small brown sparrow now ranges from the Northwest Territories of Canada to Tierra del Fuego in Chile. The house sparrow is not as controversial an import as is the starling, however, since it is not a cavity nester and prefers urban environments. It is a flying mouse in that it is hardly ever found away from human agricultural or urban settings. The house sparrow loves fast-food joints, gas stations, and grocery stores. There are well-established colonies of this bird living inside (yes, inside!) large chain stores such as Target, Home Depot, and Lowe’s.

The house sparrow feeds on seeds and grains. Its biggest threats are house cats, sparrow hawks, and encounters with vehicles. The sparrow is monogamous and nests in loosely formed colonies. Its call is a consistent chirrup, chirrup, chirrup. The male of this species wears a far more interesting feather pattern than the female.

European Starling

European starling. PHOTO BY BEV POSTMUS

In 1890, and again in 1891, some 100 starlings were released in Central Park, in New York City. It was an ill-conceived effort by a misguided literary guild to introduce all the birds of Shakespeare’s works into the New World. Today, the European starling ranges from Alaska to northern Mexico and numbers in excess of 200 million. It is continuing to spread southward into Central America and over time will more than likely inhabit all of South America.

The sad part of this tale is that the starling’s expansion comes at the expense of many native birds, including the Eastern bluebird, great crested flycatchers, and all of the indigenous woodpeckers. The problem is that the starling is a cavity nester, and because of its sheer numbers, it uses so many of the available nesting sites that the other native birds cannot find suitable habitats to raise their own broods.

One major factor in the success of the starling is its ability to adapt to urban and suburban settings. It has learned to forage in dumpsters and picnic areas, even going so far as picking insects off of car radiators in supermarket parking lots. The starling feeds on seeds, insects, fruit, and various berries. It is mostly monogamous, but individual males can be polygamous.

This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.