Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock


The English Sparrow

Teacher's Story

So dainty in plumage and hue,

A study in grey and in brown,

How little, how little we knew

The pest he would prove to the town!

From dawn until daylight grows dim,

Perpetual chatter and scold.

No winter migration for him,

Not even afraid of the cold!

Scarce a song-bird he fails to molest,

Belligerent, meddlesome thing!

Wherever he goes as a guest

He is sure to remain as a King.


—Mary Isabella Forsyth.

The English sparrow, like the poor and the house-fly, is always with us; and since he is here to stay, let us make him useful if we can devise any means of doing so. There is no bird that gives the pupils a more difficult exercise in describing colors and markings than does he; and his wife is almost equally difficult. I have known fairly skilled ornithologists to be misled by some variation in color of the hen sparrow, and it is safe to assert that the majority of people "do not know her from Adam." The male has the top of the head gray with a patch of reddish brown on either side; the middle of the throat and upper breast is black; the sides of the throat white; the lower breast and under parts grayish white; the back is brown streaked with black; the tail is brown, rather short, and not notched at the tip; the wings are brown with two white bars and a jaunty dash of reddish brown. The female has the head grayish brown, the breast, throat and under parts grayish white; the back is brown streaked with black and dirty yellow, and she is, on the whole, a "washed out" looking lady bird. The differences in color and size between the English sparrow and the chippy are quite noticeable, as the chippy is an inch shorter and far more slender in appearance, and is especially marked by the reddish brown crown.

When feeding, the English sparrows are aggressive, and their lack of table manners make them the "goops" among all birds; in the winter they settle in noisy flocks on the street to pick up the grain undigested by the horses, or in barnyards where the grain has been scattered by the cattle. They only eat weed seeds when other food fails them in the winter, for they are a civilized bird even if they do not act so, and they much prefer the cultivated grains. It is only during the nesting season that they destroy insects to any extent; over one-half the food of nestlings is insects, such as, weevils, grasshoppers, cutworms, etc.; but this good work is largely offset by the fact that these same nestlings will soon give their grown-up energies to attacking grain fields, taking the seed after sowing, later the new grain in the milk, and later still the ripened grain in the sheaf. Wheat, oats, rye, barley, corn, sorghum and rice are thus attacked. Once I saw on the upper Nile a native boat loaded with millet which was attacked by thousands of sparrows; when driven off by the sailors they would perch on the rigging, like flies, and as soon as the men turned their backs they would drop like bullets to the deck and gobble the grain before they were again driven off. English sparrows also destroy for us the buds and blossoms of fruit trees and often attack the ripening fruit.

The introduction of the English sparrow into America is one of the greatest arguments possible in favor of nature-study; for, ignorance of nature-study methods in this single instance, costs the United States millions of dollars every year. The English sparrow is the European house sparrow and people had a theory that it was an insect eater, but never took the pains to ascertain if this theory were a fact. About 1850, some people with more zeal than wisdom introduced these birds into New York, and for twenty years afterwards there were other importations of the sparrows. In twenty years more, people discovered that they had taken great pains to establish in our country one of the worst nuisances in all Europe. In addition to all the direct damage which the English sparrows do, they are so quarrelsome that they have driven away many of our native beneficial birds from our premises, and now vociferously acclaim their presence in places which were once the haunts of birds with sweet songs. After they drive off the other birds they quarrel among themselves, and there is no rest for tired ears in their vicinity. There are various noises made by these birds which we can understand if we are willing to take the pains: The harassing chirping is their song; they squall when frightened and peep plaintively when lonesome, and make a disagreeable racket when fighting.

But to "give the devil his due" we must admit that the house sparrow is as clever as it is obnoxious, and its success is doubtless partly due to its superior cleverness and keenness. It is quick to take a hint, if sufficiently pointed; firing a shotgun twice into a flock of these birds has driven them from our premises; and tearing down their nests assiduously for a month seems to convey to them the idea that they are not welcome. Another instance of their cleverness I witnessed one day; I was watching a robin, worn and nervous with her second brood, fervently hunting earthworms in the lawn to fill the gaping mouths in the nest in the Virginia creeper shading the piazza. She finally pulled up a large, pink worm and a hen sparrow flew at her viciously; the robin dropped the worm to protect herself, and the sparrow snatched it and carried it off triumphantly to the grape arbor where she had a nest of her own full of gaping mouths. She soon came back, and at a safe distance watched the robin pull out another worm, and by the same tactics again gained the squirming prize. Three times was this repeated in an hour, and then the robin, discouraged, flew up into a Norway spruce and in a monologue of sullen cluckings tried to reason out what had happened.

The English sparrow's nest is quite in keeping with the bird's other qualities; it is usually built in a hole or box or in some protected corner beneath the eaves; it is also often built in vines on buildings and occasionally in trees. It is a good example of "fuss and feathers"; coarse straw, or any other kind of material, and feathers of hens or of other birds, mixed together without fashion or form, constitute the nest. In these sprawling nests the whitish, brown or gray-flecked eggs are laid and the young reared; and so far as I can ascertain, no one has ever counted the number of broods reared in one season. The nesting begins almost as soon as the snow is off the ground and lasts until late fall.

During the winter, the sparrows gather in flocks in villages and cities, but in the spring they scatter out through the country where they can find more grain. The only place where this bird is welcome is possibly in the heart of a great city, where no other bird could pick up a livelihood. It is a true cosmopolite and is the first bird to greet the traveler in Europe or northern Africa. These sparrows will not build in boxes suspended by a wire; and they do not like a box where there is no resting place in front of the door leading to the nest.

After the pupils have made observations upon the habits of the house sparrow, they may find, in the following books and bulletins, facts which will teach further the economic importance of this bird: Birds in Their Relation to Man, by Weed and Dearborn, p. 144. The following bulletins of the U. S. Department of Agriculture: "English Sparrow in North America;" "Relation of Sparrows to Agriculture," S. D. Judd, Bulletin 15; "The Food of Nestlings," Yearbook 1900.

Lesson XIX

The English Sparrow

Leading thought—The English sparrow was introduced into America by people who knew nothing of its habits. It has finally over-run our whole country and, to a great extent, has driven out from towns and villages our useful American song birds and it should be discouraged and not allowed to nest around our houses and grounds. As a sparrow it has interesting habits which we should observe.

Methods—Let the pupils make their observations in the street or wherever they find the birds. The greatest value of this lesson is to teach the pupils to observe the coloring and markings of a bird accurately and describe them clearly. This is the best of training for later work with the wild birds.


1. How many kinds of birds do you find in a flock of English sparrows?

2. The ones with the black cravat are naturally the men of the family, while their sisters, wives and mothers are less ornamented. Describe in your note-book or from memory the colors of the cock sparrow as follows: Top of head; sides of the head; the back; the tail; the wings; wing bars; throat and upper breast; lower breast and under parts.

3. Describe the hen sparrow in the same manner and note the difference in markings between the two. Are the young birds, when they first fly, like the father or the mother?

4. Compare the English sparrow with the chippy and describe the differences in size and color.

5. Is the tail when the bird is not flying, square across the end or notched?

6. What is the shape of the beak? For what sort of food is this shaped beak meant?

7. What is the food of the English sparrows and where do they find it? Describe the actions of a flock feeding in the yard or street. Are the English sparrows kindly or quarrelsome in disposition?

8. Why do the English sparrows stay in the North during the coldest of winters? Do they winter out in the country or in villages?

9. Describe by observation how they try to drive away the robins or other native birds.

10. Describe the nest of this sparrow. Of what material is it made? How is it supported? How sheltered? Is it a well-built nest?

11. Describe the eggs. How many broods are raised a year? What kind of food do the parents give the nestlings?

12. If you have ever seen these sparrows do anything interesting, describe the circumstance.

13. In what ways are these birds a nuisance to us?

14. How much of English sparrow talk do you understand?

15. How can we build bird-boxes so that the English sparrows will not try to take possession of them?

Supplementary reading— "A Street Troubadour," in Lives of the Hunted, Thompson Seton; First Book of Birds, Miller, p. 81; "Blizzard" and "Three Sparrows that live in the House," from True Bird Stories, Miller.

Do not tire the child with questions; lead him to question you, instead. Be sure, in any case, that he is more interested in the subject than in the questions about the subject.

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