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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

What's called a "sparrow" isn't really a true sparrow.

White-throated Sparrow
Harris' Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow
When it comes to birds, I have a pet peeve. We’ve all seen what’s usually called sparrows in parking lots, city trees… everywhere. In everyday language, they’re  called house sparrows.  They are not really native sparrows, however, in the proper, scientific sense. They’re weaver-finches
. ”Passeridae” for the botanic-minded.

This is the time of year when the true Sparrows fly down to north Texas (from Canada) to spend the winter. Since they are all mainly ground-feeders, and the ground up north is frozen solid and snow-covered, they like our relative warmth. And the insects/food they have access to.  You’re most likely to see them foraging among “leaf litter” on the ground in large flocks, which often contain other species too.

 Most importantly, the true sparrows aren’t here in the warm months, and they all migrate here for the winter.

The bird that has picked up the name “house sparrow” is not native to this continent (not found here naturally). They were imported from Europe in the late 19th century. The intent was to rid cities of some insects. Instead they reproduced and spread like crazy, mostly because they have no natural enemy on this continent. (Sort of like the imported Kudzu vine has taken over many southern landscapes). Not being native, they are not protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Act.

They seem like cute little birds. But their aggressiveness and domineering habits have made them pests in situations where they live alongside our native birds – particularly Bluebirds and Purple Martins. In fact, you see fewer of these native birds around (especially Bluebirds) because the birds known as house sparrows destroy Bluebird eggs, kill babies, and take over their nesting sites. (They’re here all year long)

Savannah Sparrow
North America’s true Sparrows are here only in the cooler months, and don’t deserve to be called “just sparrows”.  Our Chipping Sparrows, Lincoln Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, Harris’ Sparrows, Juncos (a kind of sparrow) and such are subtly attractive and well-behaved, unlike the imported usurper of the name.
Fox Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow




Sunday, December 22, 2013

What pulls Santa's sleigh?

reindeer or caribou ??
As most of you know, reindeer and caribou are the very same animal, with the same scientific name. As to what pulled Santa’s sleigh, remember that the Christmas tradition developed mainly in Europe.

The deerlike animals live north of the tree-line in sub-arctic regions. The “reindeer” in northern Europe and Greenland are slightly smaller than the animals called “caribou” in North America, probably having developed that way over thousands of years when different populations of the same species were separated over long periods of time. During that time they had different diets.

Both, of course, are fast runners and are able to live largely on lichens during the arctic winters. None, as far as science has observed, have a red nose; except in peoples' imagination.


Most of us live in a “suburbia” of some sort, so I’ll relay a study published in  the Journal of Ornithology that sheds new light on a situation relevant to suburbia and birdwatching.

The study focused on 3 suburban sites, all near a major U.S. city.  It found that predation accounted for 79% of bird deaths. Not disease, not starvation, not bad weather---but an otherwise-healthy songbird being fatally attacked. 47 percent of predation events was by domestic cats.

Whatever your viewpoint on this issue, the need to reach some sort of agreement is clear. Letting domestic cats roam freely outdoors is no good for any creature. Cats that roam freely live only half as long as indoor cats, and tend to bring all kinds of germs and dirt into the house. Cats rarely kill birds because they’re hungry; it’s simply in their nature as hunters.

So if you have a housecat, like me, be kind and keep it safe and indoors.