Foam Lake Birding No. 137

brdg 137
Sent date:
01/24/2012 10:48:24 AM

"John Senkiw", "Foam Lake Review", "Kamsack Times"

No. 137
I am always amazed at how well our winter birds manage to survive the kind of severe weather that we have been having recently. Watching the birds at the feeders in -32F temperatures while having my morning coffee makes it seem not quite so cold outside. The regulars are still with us with the pleasant addition of large numbers of Redpolls that have been absent the past two years. They can certainly clean out the Canola feeders in a hurry.
In last week's article I had mentioned that I had never seen a Robin in the winter time. Well, since then my wife and I spotted one in a Poplar tree in our backyard providing us with a new birding experience. I ran for my camera to get a photo of it but by the time I got back the Robin had flown away. Too bad. To me one of the most interesting birds is the ubiquitous House Sparrow. What has impressed me the most is its adaptability. It manages to do whatever it takes to not only survive, but to thrive in changing conditions.
It should be noted that the House Sparrow is not really a sparrow but a member of an old world family of birds called Weaver Finches. Another member of the family, the similar Eurasian Tree Sparrow, has been introduced with limited success. A small colony still exists near St. Louis, MO.
As mentioned in Article No. 131 House Sparrows were brought to the Americas in the 1800s to "augment" the native bird population. The first few introduction attempts failed but enough birds were brought over that eventually success was achieved. Then, the Sparrows adapted so well and reproduced so quickly that within several decades a bounty was offered in an attempt to exterminate them. Those and future attempts to eradicate the species failed and now the House Sparrow is here to stay.
All sorts of horror stories were circulated about the aggressiveness and destructiveness of the House Sparrow and while true to some extent were greatly exaggerated. How so? Well, the House Sparrow is aggressive but it lives only in the proximity of man where very few other birds do. This means that there is no real competition for food or nesting sites except in the vicinity of man.
Sparrows prefer to nest in birdhouses and will at times expel other birds such as Tree Swallows and Blue Birds. If the nest boxes are situated away from farm buildings and urban centres the sparrows will stay away from them. On the other hand, sparrows will share multiple room Purple Martin birdhouses with the martins and with other sparrows. Birdhouses for House Wrens are just too small. If no birdhouses are available sparrows will build nests under eaves troughs, thatched roofs if available, street light fixtures and so on. If none of these cavity type sites are available they will build a free standing nest in a tree preferably spruce or Pincherry. The nest is an unkempt volleyball-sized ball of grass and feathers with an entrance hole in the side. I know of no other bird that is that flexible in its nesting practices.
Not only is the sparrow flexible in its nesting habits but it is just as flexible in its diet. It is primarily a seed eater, even shelling sunflower seeds for the oil, but will eat many other things as well. Along with the woodpeckers and chickadees sparrows gorge themselves on peanut butter and fat mixtures in our feeders. In the summertime they can often be seen feeding on squashed insects on the grills of cars and trucks. Easy pickings. In the spring they will feed voraciously on newly sprouted peas. It is comical watching sparrows lined up along a row of peas and tugging at the fresh pea leaves. As they tug at the leaves they brace themselves in an upright position ending up tumbling head over heels backwards as the leaf finally tears. The humour ends when the peas are stripped bare resulting in a row of dead plants.
In the last several decades the House sparrow population has declined locally and in Europe it has declined drastically. Why? When horses were the only means of transportation there was horse manure everywhere. (Old timers should remember those days). Unlike cattle horses do not have a very efficient digestive system and many particles of grain pass through their digestive systems and end up in the streets in manure. Although disgusting to humans, sparrows thrived on the partially digested grain in the manure. With the replacement of horsepower with machinery and the reduction in the number of farms and subsequent reduction in livestock the sparrow population has declined.
This week's photos are of sparrows sunning themselves, the male in the morning and the group in the afternoon just outside our window.