When Europeans first arrived in the Americas, there were Native American cities, but none of the species Europeans had come to expect in cities: no pigeons, no sparrows, not even any Norway rats. Even once European-style cities began to emerge, they seemed empty of birds and other large animals. In the late 1800s, a variety of young visionaries, chief among them Nicholas Pike, imagined that what was missing were the birds that live with humans and, he thought, eat our pests. Pike, about whom little is known, introduced about 16 birds into Brooklyn. They rose from his hands and took off and prospered. Every single house sparrow in North America may be descended from those birds. The house sparrows were looked upon favorably for a while until they became abundant and began to spread from California to the New York Islands, or vice versa anyway. In 1889, just 49 years after the introduction of the birds, a survey was sent to roughly 5,000 Americans to ask them what they thought of the house sparrows. Three thousand people responded and the sentiment was nearly universal: The birds were pests. This land became their land too, and that is when we began to hate them.
Because they are an introduced species, now regarded as invasive pests, house sparrows are among the few bird species in the United States that can be killed essentially anywhere, any time, for any reason. House sparrows are often blamed for declines in the abundance of native birds, such as bluebirds, though the data linking sparrow abundance to bluebird decline are sparse. The bigger issue is that we have replaced bluebird habitats with the urban habitats house sparrows favor. So go ahead and bang your pots, but remember, you were the one who, in building your house, constructed a house sparrow habitat, as we have been doing for tens of thousands of years.
As for what might happen if house sparrows became more rare, one scenario has emerged in Europe. House sparrows have become more rare there for the first time in thousands of years. In the United Kingdom, for example, numbers of house sparrows have declined by 60 percent in cities. As the birds became rare, people began to miss them again. In some countries the house sparrow is now considered a species of conservation concern. Newspapers ran series on the birds’ benefits. One newspaper offered a reward for anyone who could find out “what was killing our sparrows.” Was it pesticides, some asked? Global warming? Cellphones? Then just this year a plausible (though probably incomplete) answer seems to have emerged. The Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus), a hawk that feeds almost exclusively on sparrows, has become common in cities across Europe and is eating the sparrows. Some people have begun to hate the hawk.
In the end, I can’t tell you whether sparrows are good or bad. I can tell you that when sparrows are rare, we tend to like them, and when they are common, we tend to hate them. Our fondness is fickle and predictable and says far more about us than them. They are just sparrows. They are neither lovely nor terrible, but instead just birds searching for sustenance and finding it again and again where we live. Now, as I watch a sparrow at the feeder behind my own house, I try to forget for a moment whether I am supposed to like it or not. I just watch as it grabs onto a plastic perch with its thin feet. It hangs there and flutters a little to keep its balance as the feeder spins. Once full, it fumbles for a second and then flaps its small wings and flies. It could go anywhere from here, or at least anywhere it finds what it needs, which appears to be us.
Rob Dunn is a biologist at North Carolina State University and the author of The Wild Life of Our Bodies. He has written for Smithsonian about our ancestors’ predators, singing mice and the discovery of the hamster.