It was a rainy afternoon in the monsoon season of New Mexico. After a long day at work, I rounded the corner onto my street, so close to home that I was almost relaxed. Then, I saw her, a little wet lump sitting exactly on the center stripe of the road, obviously stunned. It was just a sparrow. A House Sparrow to be exact, scourge of North America in the minds of many; an introduced exotic species that out competes our native birds.
A thousand thoughts ran through my mind in the blink of an eye. Foremost was, quite soon, someone would surely make that left turn into the McDonald’s parking lot, and it would be her final moment. Even though there are a lot of House Sparrows here, I couldn’t let that happen. I whipped my Explorer around into a garden center parking lot, looking through the car quickly for a jacket, towel, or something that I could use to try to capture the bird. There was nothing. Well, the wet, feathered lump was still sitting there, but at least still alive. Perhaps she would be stunned enough that I could just pick her up.
I should have known better. I dashed out into the rain, and tried to unobtrusively sneak up on the little sparrow. Although stunned, she was certainly not oblivious to the giant human now in hot pursuit. She perked right up, and tried to look as healthy as possible. One tiny little wing dragged and was clearly broken, but there was nothing wrong with her legs. Off she dashed across the street and right into the McDonald’s drive-thru lane. I skirted around and she raced off toward the shrubs. If I was worried about looking foolish before, it was nothing compared to how I felt as cars began to stop and look at the strange woman chasing a tiny bird through the parking lot. Ms. Sparrow made it to the juniper before me, but I arrived before she scrambled beneath what she viewed as safety. A quick flip of the wrist and I had the prize firmly in my wet hand. Returning to the car, I realized that I had no box or cloth with which to confine her for the one-block trip to the house. Nor could I drive, shift, and hold the sparrow. I stuffed her into the leftover McDonald’s bag that had held that morning’s breakfast burrito. Somehow, it seemed fitting.
The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is an Old World sparrow, not related to the American, or New World, sparrows that are native to North America. There are more than thirty species of native New World sparrows in our country, all of which are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. While some of our native sparrows are abundant, for others there are serious conservation concerns, as well as significant threats.
However, when the word “sparrow” is mentioned, it is the ubiquitous House Sparrow that comes to mind. In 1851 and 1852, 100 birds were introduced in Brooklyn, New York to help control the canker worms that infested many of the trees in the parks. Ironically, this lowly sparrow, set free to control an insect pest, is primarily a seed-eating bird. There were no natural predators in our country for the little urban dwelling sparrow and they thrived in their new land. The House Sparrow is now one of the most abundant songbirds on our continent, with an estimated 150 million birds in North America. Although abundant, long term data indicate a general continental decline in the House Sparrow population.
Worldwide there is great concern about the survival of the species. During the 1950s, the Mao Tse Tung regime unleashed a campaign to rid that country of the House Sparrow, resulting in targeted and committed persecution of the bird. In the United Kingdom, populations have declined as much as 83%, without any known deliberate killing of even a single bird.
In the Netherlands, it is an endangered species. In 1995, the misadventure of one unfortunate sparrow that flew in through an open window and knocked over 23,000 dominoes incited the wrath of environmental groups worldwide. The ill-fated bird flew into an exposition center in the northern city of Leeuwarden, where employees of TV company Endemol NV had worked for weeks setting up more than 4 million dominoes in an attempt to break the official Guinness World Record for falling dominoes. The little sparrow was chased into a corner and shot by an exterminator with an air rifle.
The following day, the Dutch animal protection agency demanded prosecution, "Under Dutch law, you need a permit to kill this kind of bird, and a permit can only be granted when there's a danger to public health or a crop," said agency spokesman Niels Dorland. "That was not the case. I might add: Is it really necessary to kill a bird that knocked over a few dominoes for a game?" he asked. The story made headlines worldwide. Not since Cock Robin has the death of a tiny bird caused such emotion.
Eventually, the Dutch Bird Protection Agency reported that although it was a very sad incident, it had been blown out of all proportion. "I just wish we could channel all this energy that went into one dead sparrow into saving the species," Dorland stated.
In my case, Ms. Sparrow stayed the night, regularly breaking out of the box that held her on my kitchen countertop. She was transported to Wildlife Rescue the following morning, and at last report was doing just fine, living with all the other House Sparrows in the rehab center. Humans have interfered with her life since she before she born, from releasing her species into a strange world, to her encounter that rainy day with someone’s bumper. She is just one sparrow. But she did not die a lingering death in a parking lot, thanks to wildlife rehabilitators who care enough to put the time and energy into her recovery. And one determined lady who wouldn’t have been able to sleep that night if I had just driven on by.