Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Native Sparrows
Nature Bulletin No. 525   April 12, 1958
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

The commonest bird of our cities and towns, or about buildings in rural regions, is the English Sparrow. This much cussed and discussed immigrant was brought from Europe to America. about a century ago and quickly followed man across the continent. It builds large trashy nests of grass and straw, lined with feathers, under the eaves or roofs of garages, barns, sheds and porches, as well as in birdhouses. It is quarrelsome and they sang together to drive out songbirds. Sometimes it is called the House Sparrow but, strictly speaking, it is one of the Weaver Finches which build nests with a side entrance. It is not a sparrow.

Our native sparrows are true sparrows. In bird lists they are placed at the back of the book because they occupy the topmost branch of the family tree of birds. Most bird scientists place them there because they are most different from that fossil reptile-like ancestor of birds, which had teeth in its mouth, toenails on its wings, and a long rat-like tail with a row of feathers down each side.

About twenty species of native sparrows have been found in the Chicago region. Some of them are rare; but, if you look in the right places, almost half of them can be seen here at some time during the year. They are inconspicuously colored -- usually in grays and browns - - more or less striped above and lighter beneath. Males and females are much alike. Being birds of the ground, or not far from it, they have coloring well suited to conceal them in fields and thickets. Most of them are about the size of an English sparrow, and each weighs about an ounce. The Chipping Sparrow is the smallest and the Fox Sparrow the largest. Their nests, made of dried grass and rootlets, often lined with hair, are on the ground or in bushes. The Song Sparrow, Field Sparrow and Vesper Sparrow nest regularly in this region. In winter, our most common bird is probably the Tree Sparrow which comes down from Canada. To a close observer these birds act differently from the English sparrow. When eating or resting, many of them have a quick nervous twitching of the wings and tail. Some scratch for food with a quick backward jump with both feet.

These native sparrows, each year, devour huge quantities of the seeds of noxious weeds which they crack with their short stout cone-shaped bills. In fact, weed and grass seeds make up over 90 percent of their diet during most of the year. In the state of Iowa it was once estimated that these sparrows ate 875 tong of weed seed each season. This figure was based on 10 sparrows per square mile, each eating one-fourth ounce of seed daily for 200 days out of the year. In summer, and especially in the breeding season, their food -- and that of their growing young -- consists mostly of protein-rich insects. These include large numbers of harmful weevils, other beetles, and grasshoppers.

Not vividly colored, and not boldly marked, these sparrows are often known best by the brilliance and the melody of their singing. Among the best of these songsters are the White-throated, White-crowned, Field and Song sparrows. Of these, the last is well named and may be heard any month in the year -- "Maids ! Maids ! Maids ! hang up your teakettle-ettle-ettle". The field sparrow sings, "Here, Here, Here, Here, Sweet, Sweet, Sweet, Sweet". For rainy days the white-crown has a special whispering song. The white-throat calls, "Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody".

The best bird-watchers shut their eyes and listen for sparrows.

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