Birds on Decline, Maybe a Look at Sparrows Gives a Clue

Male_Sparrow_2-17-13

Gazing above.

The more I study birds, the more birds I see headed for decline around the world.

While we get many migrant birds, their numbers seem to be lessening. I really hope the worldwide sparrow disappearance gets solved for the sake of birds everywhere.  The study into sparrows exposes a number of causes of decline in many species of bird. Check out the studies…

Sparrow_On_Monarda

That’s my story and I’m STICKING with it.

World Sparrow Day,  was on March 20th, the day is set aside to raise awareness about the decline of the House Sparrow, Passer domesticus.

SparrowWC

Look before you leap.

On this day the world over, people exchange conservation ideas which could lead to a better understanding of the worldwide sparrow loss. Finding the cause might protect other birds in the future from the same or similar fate.

MaleSparrowBowing

Taking a nose dive.

Some have expressed extreme dislike for this particular bird. In fact, many look at House Sparrows (HOSP) as worthless, bothersome and damaging. There is certainly no shortage of reasons why either.

  • The HOSPs can attack and kill bluebirds.
  • They might destroy eggs and young too.
  • Native birds like Chickadees abandon nest boxes simply by being harassed by the HOSP.
  • A HOSP flock near nest boxes can cause premature fledging of other songbirds.
  • They damage crops, and create unsanitary conditions for grain storage.
  • They can spread disease like any bird.
  • They can overwhelm bird feeders by driving other species away, but I don’t find that here as a rule.
Sparrow_In_Snow

Lone sparrow.

They do many things that makes humans wish for their demise, unfortunately. There are many less sparrowcidal theories as to why they are disappearing though. Let’s see how these studies can give clues for birds everywhere…

Noise

One study has proposed that urban noise could be blamed on affecting the parent birds’ ability to communicate with its young. This correlates how often the chicks will be fed. The findings did show that birds living in quiet areas were fed more than those in noisier environments.

It made a connection with fledgling size and even birds making it to that stage. They made note of underweight and undersized birds. Would this not effect all city nesting birds though?

SparrowFeeder

Scary looking sparrow at the feeder. Another oddity?

ScarySparrow

Had to prove this is a sparrow.

Sparrows like city gardens.

Another study revealed that House Sparrows prefer gardens even over park green space in urban environments. This is because gardens have shrubby cover, while the majority of parks have more open area for recreation for people. The sparrows also like our feeders.

SparrowWC

Grabbing at straws.

But as seen above, this preferred city living is actually detrimental to the HOSPs raising young due to noise.

Another reason is there are fewer insects needed for the young in urban environments. Urban predators such as feral cats prove detrimental.  Cats, both domesticated and feral, kill millions of birds per year.

CoySparrow

Give me a wink.

Speaking of Insects – Insect decline is very telling.

With a warming Earth, cities are getting hotter too. Studies have shown plants are ranging northward in our country due to increased temperatures, but not the insects that feed on them at the same rate. They do not coincide in this slow migration. Warming introduces new plant species to existing habitats, and throws out of sync the eat or be eaten scenario. Plants can become invasive if acclimating to new areas where previously not found. This has happened to the house sparrow coming from Europen to the US.

Some studies postulate that newly invasive species will be winning the battle of survival against the native plants for the simple reason of taste. The native plants will be muscled out by plants not having predators consume them. Less native plants – equals less native insects – which equals less birds that feed on them.

Female_Sparrow_On_White

Sorry, no can do.

Here is the State of Birds 2010 Report of Climate Change. It is a downloadable PDF.

Since urban areas are so heavily paved, there is little space for native plants to grow, and those that do, get treated for removal in many cities. This is to reduce rodents and insects, and to keep circulation routes visibly clear and safe.

House Sparrows prefer to nest in, on, or near our buildings which is a reason they populate cities.  So where does this food shortage for young birds leave the sparrows or any other songbird for that matter?

FemaleSparrow

Hey, over here.

Plant gardeners, plant.

It is up to property owners to plant to create pesticide free habitats for all birds and the insects they feed their young, and hope that nature resolves the problems of which it is faced. Thoughtful landscaping is all any homeowner can do to help nature help itself.

GoldSparrow

Leucistic Sparrow – would we miss this beauty if sparrows were gone?

Large property owners can leave a portion untouched in a natural state, maybe adding more understory plants at the perimeter to woodlands and meadows. They can plant hedgerows for nesting and winter shelter.  Many species of birds will benefit.

sparrowfest

Sparrow Fest, no shortage of them here!

Pesticides and cell phones?

The HOSP’s alarming decline has been blamed on everything from gardeners’ pesticide use to mobile phone towers. These two theories seem plausible as contributing factors, but again, would be a detriment to all birds.

4Sparrows

Sittin’ on the dock of the bay.

 What’s eating sparrows?

Other reports claim that birds of prey are to blame for the 65 per cent fall in Britain’s sparrows since the 1970s. They cite sparrowhawks and magpies as two birds killing off sparrows. This one seems a bit questionable, even with an increase in raptors after the ban of DDT.

TwoSparrows

Incoming!

So they did a study with fake predators.

They artificially tested sparrows with recorded predator sounds to come to a conclusion. The “mere threat of a predator to sparrows being exposed to predator sounds has sparrows literally scared into decline” was the theory. They did find that the tested sparrows spent more time in safe places (hiding), consumed less food (by venturing out less), and decreased offspring production (by not searching for mates).

Surprising? I think not. They had the sparrows scared to live normally. But wouldn’t all birds fear the same predation?

sparrowsfeeder-2

Outta the way, bub.

Environmental degradation.

Poor planning and use of our urban environments, such as the increase of urban structures, scarcity of street trees, air pollution from vehicular travel, and temperature increases from excess paving, all play into bird loss in general. Again, no surprise.

How about the top 20 birds in decline?  Three New World Sparrows made the list.

sparrow_on_RoseBush

The roses are gone.

Drug them out of existence.

I believe many of the noted factors play into the decline of the sparrow, but I am also suspect of the drug DiazaCon that was once used to curb reproduction in the bird and help reduce populations in cities.

“Diazacon was later studied as a reproductive inhibitor for use in control of pest birds. It was thought that since eggs contain cholesterol, lowering cholesterol might inhibit reproduction. More importantly, 20,25 diazacholesterol may have the ability to block production of hormones necessary for reproduction such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Tests showed 20,25 diazacosterol to be effective in reducing reproduction in pigeons, blackbirds, starlings, and sparrows.” (source)

Likely, there are many causes for decline, but just as likely there is a major catalyst for the spiral downward. One has to question this because, like the study on predation, population decline would be affecting more species of songbird if blamed solely on environmental triggers or conditions. There has to be something specific or endemic to the House Sparrow that is being overlooked or missed.

SparrowFlight

Are you scared for birds in decline?

4Sparrows_on_Log

Hey, there’s no corners here.

Humans take creatures like the sparrow for granted, maligned beings we deem as a nuisance, critters we try to eliminate, birds that have bounty on their heads. Will we appreciate them when they are gone or appreciate that they are gone?

SparrowMale

Life is complicated.

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About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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46 Responses to Birds on Decline, Maybe a Look at Sparrows Gives a Clue

  1. swo8 says:

    I think there is a decline in morning birdsong. I’m wondering if it could be the neonicotinoids that are are harming the birds and it is thought to be killing our bees too?
    Leslie

    • Emily Scott says:

      Neonics wouldn’t directly kill birds but, like other pesticides, when used on crops they do reduce insect populations, so that there’s less food about for the birds. Both birds and bees need places to nest and find food, and humans keep reducing those places.

      Bees are facing all sorts of problems – a lack of suitable wild flowers and nesting habitat destruction is a big one for native bees, while honey bees face various diseases and pests like varroa, AFB, EFB and nosema. The commercial honey bees you hear about in the news a lot are being trucked all over the U.S. from monocrop to monocrop so it’s no wonder they’re not doing well, bees need a healthy varied diet of different pollens to thrive. Despite the headlines neonics are not the main worry for most beekeepers.

    • Emily is very correct on all counts and bees have so many factors affecting them. I think our area is losing migrating birds due to lack or lessening food sources, (habitat included) but that includes as I mentioned in the post – the warming seasons are affecting insect life. The insects they are seeking may not be where they need them. This year we might have a banner year for insects since we had such a mild winter. Many more likely insects over-wintered and could have survived winter’s cold weather. Also with a later start to winter and maybe an early start to spring, insects that usually don’t migrate here may have travelled our way. It looks like science is much considering this occurrence, seeing insects from the south moving further north. This will affect native plants since those insects could not have natural predators yet.

  2. diggingher says:

    Another educational post. I adore my birds. Watching them return year after year is part of my daily enjoyment. All your photos are beautiful but that first snap is amazing.

    • Thank you. I too love the birds and look forward to the migrants each year. All the sparrows in the post are from my garden. If the world needs house sparrows, they are welcome to take them from here, free of charge!

  3. Interesting article and very thought provoking. I like your watercolor pictures of the sparrows. Did you paint them? or was it a computer app or program? It really adds another dimension to the birds/pictures.

    • Thanks Sue. I did paint them on the computer, but no one-click app used like are so popular. I use photoshop and have shown on other posts how I start from scratch and paint just like I would with oil or watercolor. Check out my post, Digital Painting Process – Red-Tailed Hawk. I updated the comment because of no link, as I was on my iPad in reader mode. Click it to see the whole process and the specialized equipment I use.

  4. Terrific post and accompanying images.

  5. David says:

    I’m repeat what others have said – this is a very interesting, educational and thought provoking post. I enjoyed it very much.

  6. Excellent observations and salient points. A beautifully written layman’s ‘environmental impact statement’.

    I would like to add a tangential comment (not related to sparrows) about:
    “Since urban areas are so heavily paved…”
    This is a surprising contributing factor in recent increases of drought conditions in areas never before having to worry about water…The ground water supply is not as easily renewed because rainfall cannot penetrate the asphalt/concrete surfaces. That’s why gravel parking lots are better for the environment…

    • Very true that solid paving methods like asphalt and concrete are creating groundwater and drainage problems. Add to that what Emily mentioned above on using artificial turf. That is not only a problem in the UK, but also here. Drought has driven homeowners to replace turf that must be watered with that which it is unnecessary to do so. Some places are fined if they water their property, and since it costs money for each violation, artificial grass products have so improved, it is difficult to differentiate. It becomes an easy, maintanence-free, “beautiful” choice for their budget.

  7. Wow, that “sparrow fest” photo is amazing. We have sparrows here and many other species. It is sad to hear about the decline of many bird species. I’ve read that cats are the biggest killers of birds, but of course all the other factors weigh into the equation, as well. I’m always mad when I see my neighbors’ cats out in my yard. They kill the songbirds and they bother my cats–poking their noses in the windows and getting my indoor cats all riled up. I love cats, but I keep mine inside. There’s so much we can do, as individuals even. One of those things is to keep our pet cats inside.

    • Thanks Beth. The sparrow fest is in my backyard. I did read recently that the bird deaths from cats is not as reported. The number were inflated, but that still does not lessen the impact of bird decline. Cats are a problem, just not as big a problem as first reported by Audubon and the NWF. That is why I said millions, not billions. The researchers have not yet agreed on the numbers.

  8. Emily Scott says:

    I’m seeing a disturbing trend in London for people putting artificial turf in their gardens. They don’t want soil and grass as it can get muddy and requires more looking after than plastic turf. Of course artificial is no good for birds and other wildlife. I see lots of pigeons, blackbirds and magpies but very few sparrows and starlings, which used to hang around in big flocks.

    • I have read about that artificial turf trend in the UK and mentioned it in a post on drought last year. In our country we also have places where this is becoming more popular. Thank you for your insight and comments. I agree with what you posted and added a bit more. I really can not imagine what is the reason for sparrow decline without it being similar to all birds. In our country, some kill or poison them, and we still have them in huge numbers.

      • Emily Scott says:

        I can understand the temptation to use artificial turf in areas affected by drought, as it may seem like a more eco-friendly alternative to constantly watering grass. But putting in native drought resistant plants which don’t require much watering must be a better option, as I think you’ve written about in the past.

  9. It definitely is a complicated issue. And yes, your photos and watercolor images are great!

  10. As always, I learned a lot from your posting, Donna. I have sparrows here and I love them in spite of the negatives. I have more problems with starlings which I despise. I didn’t know sparrows were in decline — so sad. I haven’t blogged for some time and so glad I didn’t miss this important posting. Your photographs and paintings are amazing — you are so talented! P. x

    • Thank you, Pam. I don’t really mind them except they cost me a lot in premium bird food. It seems like we are the only country not losing sparrows. I have been following this for years and it just seems to be getting worse. As Emily mentioned, sparrows are not seen.

  11. rose says:

    I had no idea sparrows were in decline–you certainly wouldn’t know it at my house! I have a large quince outside the garage that is a popular resting spot for them, and I see a dozen or more there at different times of day. I hope noise isn’t a contributing factor, because Sophie loves to bark at them:) I’m just getting back into blogging after taking a little break, and how I have missed your incredible photos, Donna! I just read one of your comments about how you created the water color photos–they’re beautiful!

    • At least not in this country yet. The sparrow fest was at my house and know it happens at every urban home having bird feeders. I would doubt noise would affect the birds. they would just move to another location, even abandon a nest. Some of the studies seemed rather fanciful. Science driven by money (grants) and fame (high regard/honor in the field) has individuals applying for grants to stay employed too. I was a promising bio major (completed all credits) before architecture and if I chose grad school or a doctorate there rather than architecture, grants, research and papers were in my future. I was part of one research study/grant on bats. It was interesting, yet unrewarding as I need creativity in my life. Science limits how one can be creative. Imagination must step aside rather quickly for facts and proof.

  12. I did write about how competition with a native invasive species could be driving down populations of the house sparrow in Brisbane a couple of years ago: https://standingoutinmyfield.wordpress.com/2012/11/24/the-disappearing-act-of-house-sparrows/
    But I wouldn’t worry too much about the house sparrow if I were you…it may decline locally, but this species is now globally distributed, and there’s little that could threaten the species as a whole.

    • While sparrows are distributed worldwide except for the poles I think, there is no denying their loss in Europe and India, two areas noticing the decline. I have read many reports on the decline and none seem likely to be the main catalyst for demise. Competition from native sparrows does not happen in this country, partly due to habitat preferences, the rest in sheer numbers of HOSPs and their nesting practices. I am not worried for the HOSP, but other bird species experiencing decline and hoping it is not related to how fast the HOSP population dropped in some areas of the world. Since most birds migrate, it makes sense to isolate a cause, should it affect others birds. As you know, disease does not always stay with one host type, and can cross Species or Order – although very uncommon. With bird to bird, it is more likely, right? While something threatening a whole species might be a remote possibility, I think we live in times where it might develop more easily. I quickly searched for an article on disease wiping out a species and only found a few, but not on science sites so I did not list any. Climate change may be the “killer” we find that does the deed.

      • Yes, many species are in decline, for many different reasons, but I prefer not to draw attention away from truly threatened species by focusing on the abundant and invasive ones, although declines in home ranges are a concern. This is the challenge of being general…we want to be general enough to be widely applicable, but there is a point at which it becomes too general and loses applicability. So we can be generally worried about species in decline, but given that there are so many diverse drivers, what use is it? Worry without the possibility of action is not necessarily useful…

        • I agree that being too general is a problem most times. That is why I raise the questions I do, to see if readers can give ideas. no matter how relevant or applicable they might be. It all depends on where one lives and what they notice is disappearing how much a problem is present. The HOSP is invasive here, but not in their place of decline. We can learn from decline where it happens, but also where it could occur.

          In my post yesterday, I looked at the sea rising (climate change) and it took being in Amsterdam to see what will likely happen to them and in some places in our country that exist near or below sea level. Sure, the main concern will be people being displaced, but the damage to whole habitats seems much more worrisome in the long run. I did read while those wetlands and estuaries are being consumed by the sea, they are developing more inland where people have resided. But some creatures may not adapt. Readers shared their experiences from where they lived. Two in particular make the problem much more real.

          I agree on threatened creatures – like tigers, elephants, vultures and other animals from India besides their sparrow loss, not because I live there, but because like folks worldwide, we may not be seeing those creatures one day. I suppose science will “fix” that though. Are they not trying to splice DNA from the Woolly Mammoth to an elephant? Just one more thing that science and technology should leave alone. Is it great for science advancement? Is it morally correct? Don’t we have enough species of life going extinct everyday? When you look at the big picture (which is very generalized in thinking) I think it puts so many things in the spotlight. It allows for seeing connections. That is what science is really good at, making connections. It takes that kind of thinking to solve big problems.

  13. Lisa - Ontario says:

    I love the bird pictures thank you. I find the decline in bird populations very disturbing. Sometimes my design for my garden even takes a hit because I will plant something (or let remain) that the birds are enjoying. I can see the redwing blackbirds starting to nest in the cedar trees across the parking lot, and I have a good view of the tree over the river that the bald eagles like to perch in. This is through my window at work. I am very fortunate.

    • I find our gardens do help quite a bit, but can never account for full life cycles of many of our insect friends. So many butterflies (besides Monarchs) for instance have plants that are found in fields and meadows as host plants. If a caterpillar needs a weed we don’t want in gardens, we can feed adults, but not nourish the young. Like you, I do let weeds pop up in the garden. My garden is so filled with flowers, the weeds find it hard to compete. I just make sure the Queen Anne’s Lace and dandelion are beheaded before seed time. Both get a lot of insect activity. So do many aggressive weeds too, but we have to be selective. I had to take out the goldenrod because the whole garden would have been that plant. It got quite a number of bees, but had to go. Neighbors!!!!!!

  14. Sadly we are seeing the same decline in many of our bird species in the UK and in particularly the House Sparrow. We have put up several nesting boxes up for them and in our garden things now look better.

  15. The decline in House Sparrows has yet to reach our area. They are still quite numerous here. On the other hand, Bluejays and Crows have all but disappeared. The overall situation is certainly alarming.

    • I would not suspect that Chicago is losing house sparrows. 😀 The US has far too many of them, and Europe should take some back. I have not seen a decrease in Jays or Crows. They are still plentiful in my city. The birds I notice less often now are the migrant birds. Last year was an especially a poor showing. On the other hand, I have seen quite a few eagles this year.

  16. arlene says:

    What a lovely and enlightening post Donna. My little sparrows still wake me up in the morning with their songs. I love all your photos.

  17. Annette says:

    What an insightful post, thanks a lot, Donna, also for pointing out the influence of cats which is still much ignored but remains a fact. Certainly they can’t compete with the dreadful influence we humans have on this planet. I’m reading ‘The 6th extinction’ at the moment, a book which would be of interest to you, I’m sure.

    • Thank you Annette. I see the issue with cats first hand living in a city. I lose more songbirds due to predator behavior from hawks, even though the garden has many places for the songbirds to retreat to safety. The cats have places to hide with all the shrubs in the garden, but the birds must see them before they enter. The most successful cat was one that sat in wait on the roof of my garage behind the parapet. When the birds landed on the parapet he grabbed them. All winter he was well fed. The book does sound like one that would interest me. Thank you for the suggestion.

  18. I love the blog, the pics, the science – but not sure they don’t care for noise? We feed our wild birds year around – part as clean up after our roaming chickens, part by providing clean birdseed in harsh winter weather – part as part of our normal chemical-free gardening. We have about 20 acres, a pond, a creek, plenty of trees and bushes. purposely pile downed tree limbs on our dump and woodchip compost piles to give them plenty of play space (they do seem to love it). We even have a handmade wooden little wishing well up front with a pump in a bucket of rocks that bubbles water – caught them sneaking out from between the wood slats yesterday – great fun to watch! We also have a decent size fish pond in the front yard with a wonderful waterfall that runs year around. They love taking bird baths and drinking from that area. We placed some feeders outside our living room and kitchen windows so we can watch all the birds. We have tons of sparrows, bluejays, robins, doves, woodpeckers and more to enjoy. I think we have so many mainly because of all the extras – no chemicals (our pest controls are all natural) trees, bushes, water and downed limb brush piles. Watching the birds is so wonderful and relaxing. Oh, and we also have honey bee hives (600 colonies come up from AZ every spring – take 3 days to distribute to about 6 other counties from our property – then every fall they do the reverse…for the use of our place, we get a great colony all summer free, and a free case of honey in the fall when they leave – love the barter system!) Thank you for the great article!

    • I would love to have both chickens and honeybees. The city allows neither. Little does the city know, but I have a lot of native bees making their homes here. I really have to watch for the ground dwellers too when in the garden. Bees are all over my garden.

      I love how your farm is chemical free and it sounds like the birds and bees do as well. You have so much for wildlife on your 20 acres. My own small space is free of chemicals and I grow plants that the birds, bees and insects enjoy. It is much more work to care for the garden, but I really do it for the wildlife more than for me. At the end of the month I have a post scheduled that talks about the bees in my garden. I even admit the garden flowers are for them and not for me. I enjoy watching birds too and it is partly why I became a birder. At first it was for my photography, but then I realized how much enjoyment there is from just watching them through binoculars.

  19. Steve Jones says:

    Hi, Such wonderful pictures and great research, shame it’s such a sad subject. My take is that mankind will mourn the loss of wildlife but is too indifferent to preserve endangered species that might be a bit cynical but in the U.K the RSPB did a campaign to get government to recognise wildlife, the campaign was called vote for Bob (Bob being a red squirrel). My local park warden refused to put a vote for Bob poster with a beautiful picture of a red squirrel up on the grounds that it was politically motivated. No amount of explanation could alter their opinion it’s just so sad.

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