Small, short-beaked, and ubiquitous, it’s easy to overlook the unpretentious sparrow.
Blending into their environments with dun-coloured plumage, these small seed-eating birds are found on every continent other than Antarctica, and live in almost every human city. Because they are so small and easy to overlook, their diversity and importance to an ecosystem can be missed – and in some parts of the globe, they’re disappearing. Which is why March 20 has been designated World Sparrow Day.
In Alberta alone, there are more than 20 different species of new-world sparrows, from Nelson’s sharp-tailed sparrow to the common white-throated sparrow – one of the most recognizable sparrows in the backyards and parks of our cities.
Identifiable by its crisp facial markings white crown and black eye stripe, the white-throated sparrow’s song is often compared to a wavering whistle of ‘Oh Canada.’ Although they tend to overwinter in the south, they nest and breed all across Canada. The oldest white-throated sparrow ever recorded was at least 14 years, 11 months old when it was recaptured and released right here in Alberta.
The white-throated sparrow is one of several species of sparrow that have adapted well to human environments – 16 of the native sparrow species in Alberta have been found nesting in buildings. Most of these urban-adapting sparrows are going to be easier to spot than those that avoid human contact.
One of these frequent visitors to our backyards is the American tree sparrow. Despite its name, the American tree sparrow is mostly a ground bird, preferring to forage on the ground, nest on the ground, and live primarily in scrubby areas near the ground. This ravenous bird will eat about 30 per cent of its body weight in food every day!
But some of the species of sparrow that don’t like to live in urban environments are declining in numbers in Alberta.
The Brewer’s Sparrow, and Baird’s Sparrow have seen steep declines since 1994 due to reductions in their native habitat. Cultivation, heavy grazing and other land uses are encroaching into their traditional areas.
Baird’s Sparrow, which winters in Mexico, and nests in Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan during the summer eludes predators by running on the ground, rather than flying away. Unfortunately, there may be fewer than 10,000 of these birds left in Alberta.
Researchers at the University of Manitoba have shown that some sparrows in Western Canada are altering their birdsongs to deal with the noise from industrial operations. The Savannah sparrow, which comes to Alberta during the summer, deals with noise pollution by altering the pitch of their songs to move the notes out of the frequencies of the industrial machinery.
So next time you notice something small, and brown at your birdfeeder, take note that even the commonest of creatures in our environment have interesting stories and play a key role in our ecosystems and our human stories.