Urban Birding Adventure: St. Louis Tree Sparrows!

I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with relatives in Saint Louis, Missouri. We went to the local zoopark, and I enjoyed the opportunity for some backyard and urban bird-watching. As nice as it was to see the Cardinals of Saint Louis (of course, I mean the birds not the baseball team), the ornithological highlight of the trip had to be the sighting of the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus).

We started out by driving around in the Dogtown community which includes the Clayton-Tamm neighborhood. After we spotted suspected Eurasian Tree Sparrows (not to be confused with American Tree Sparrows, who are not true sparrows but buntings) perched on a wire, we decided to park somewhere and walk around. Near our parking spot, songbirds could be heard, and a possible predator was lurking on a lamppost.

We headed back on foot toward the site of the drive-by sighting of suspicious silhouettes on a wire, and I had already trained my eye to scan for all of the feeding stations dutifully maintained by the residents of the neighborhood, even after a rainstorm. While walking eastward on Lloyd Avenue, just past Graham Street, I spotted a little black cheek spot like the pupil of an eye gazing out at us from the center of a shrub. This was our first confirmed sighting of the Eurasian Tree Sparrow in Saint Louis!

This is nearly the very instant of our first confirmed sighting of the Eurasian Tree Sparrow in the States on 27 November 2011 at 12:53 CST. Indeed, they were exactly where they were supposed to be!


During our sparrow stalking, Roman was snap-shooting, and I was filming:

There is no audio on this clip (anyway, the track consists only of heavy breathing of exhilarated bird-watching tourists), and it is clear that image stabilization features fail to correct for my exuberance in those moments.

I tried to keep my distance, but as I slowly walked around the shrubbery near the alleyway, the host of sparrows fled. One of them flew to a more elevated vantage point on the wire.

We followed some of them to another feeder closer to the corner of Lloyd Avenue and Graham Street.

Why would we join the ranks of sparrow paparazzi, loitering in the quiet Irish neighborhood in 39 °F weather armed with photo and film recording devices? Eurasian Tree Sparrows are living, breathing, breeding artifacts of St. Louis history. European settlers were nostalgic and practical; they missed the songbirds of their homeland, and they had hoped that the feathered mementos would assist with insect control in the area. Among other birds including Bullfinches, Chaffinches, Goldfinches, Greenfinches, and Siskins, Eurasian Tree Sparrows were part of a shipment procured by Carl Daenzer and a bird broker by the name of Kleinschmidt for the purpose of introduction into the New World. The birds, including the original twenty (or else twelve pairs, depending on the sourcePhillips, 1928) Eurasian Tree Sparrows, were liberated at Lafayette Park on 25 April 1870.Wideman, 1909 Of that lot, only the “German Sparrows,” as they were called to distinguish them from the more vigorous “English” House Sparrows who had been first released in number fivefold larger in Brooklyn, New York in the early 1850s, survived and thrived, but their naturalization process was relatively slow.

According to the sighting map, Eurasian Tree Sparrows have not ventured far from their point of introduction. They are rather shy invaders.

The species is common and widespread in the Old World, but in the United States, Eurasian Tree Sparrows, now numbering in the tens of thousands or more, remained localized to Saint Louis, Missouri for nearly a century after their Stateside introduction before eventually spreading into adjacent territory in southwestern Illinois* and southeastern Iowa.Ehrlich et al., 1988 Meanwhile, the “English Sparrows” reached numbers in hundreds of millions and had already pioneered westward toward the Rocky Mountains.

Even if the chestnut cap and the black cheek spot were not visible, the bird perched on the awning would be obviously distinguishable from the more aggressive introduced sparrow species by personality; the House Sparrow would not patiently wait his turn at the feeder! And these personality traits are speculated to be relevant in competition for nest site acquisition as well.Barlow, 1973

Here is a sample of feeder footage. The Eurasian Tree Sparrows tolerate mixed flocks, even with brilliantly colored house finches. Vocalizations of the Eurasian Tree Sparrows can be heard at the beginning of the clip.

As far as I am concerned, Eurasian Tree Sparrows should have a brass star and bronze plaque on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. I am not only a paparazza; I am also a loyal fan. Therefore, I had my photo taken with these feathered celebrities. For such an evidently synanthropic species, they were skittish and flighty; my photographic souvenir had to be recorded with two focal planes.

Unlike in the Great Sparrow Campaign in China, in 1958, when the people overestimated granivory and grossly underestimated insectivory of the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, in the case of the North American introduction, the people moderately underestimated the Eurasian Tree Sparrows’ granivory. The birds thrived in the vicinity of the local breweries.Wideman, 1909, Lever, 2010 As a matter of fact, our Passer montanus sighting site was only a five minute drive away from the Schlafly Tap Room, and that is whither we went to drink to the Eurasian Tree Sparrows!

*I have mentioned this species before in a previous post, as a case of cryptic (since Eurasian Tree Sparrows are sexually monomorphic gynandromorphism was discovered in 1986 in a Eurasian Tree Sparrow found deceased on the roadside just southwest of Springfield, Illinois.H.David Bohlen, 2006

~ by finchwench on Thursday, 1 December 2011.

4 Responses to “Urban Birding Adventure: St. Louis Tree Sparrows!”

  1. That’s funny to realise one have to go to a special place to see Tree Sparrows but even funnier that such a place exists. Why they haven’t spread everywhere?

    • From what I read, it seems that the reasons for the persistent localization are not understood. The population has survived the risk of inbreeding depression, so I do not think that small population effects are to blame. The first dispersal event was motivated by the arrival of the “English” House Sparrows in 1878. So maybe the fact that they are surrounded by House Sparrows (who compete for and win the nesting cavities) is sufficient to contain the “German” Tree Sparrows most of the time; in that case, “personality” effects are significant.

      St. Louis is by the way one of the “saddest cities” according recent survey and statistics. Personally, I am quite happy with birds and beer. Special place, it is!

  2. Awesome and well done, yippieh :)

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