One of the world’s most urban birds has parked itself in downtown Whitehorse.
The house sparrow, a small chirpy songbird, is now a familiar sight at downtown grocery store parking lots and other places where food is handy.
Unrelated to North American sparrows, which come here each spring, house sparrows are kin to an African weaver finch. Introduced from Europe to Brooklyn in the mid-1850s to help hunt bugs, they showed up in Ontario in 1870 and are now resident in most North American cities. Once established, they are non-migratory and stay close to reliable food sources. (That includes insects caught in car grills in summer.)
First reported here in the l990s, a single nesting pair was confirmed a decade ago. Now, chirpy flocks are seen and heard downtown almost daily. There have been surprisingly few sightings in other neighbourhoods.
Over a hundred individuals were observed there at Christmas, with 110 counted one day in March at the Alpine Bakery – a house sparrow hotspot.
House sparrows have also been reported in larger numbers (and declines) in urban Northwest Territories, with some even recorded in Nunavut and Alaska.
The bird has a large head and stout-chest. Males sport grey caps, black bibs and bills and white cheeks. The females are rather drab-looking, with a streaked back and buffy eye-line. Their nests are “untidy” conical-shaped nests in crevices including store-front facades and light standards.
Local observer Tracy Allard suggests the bird has adapted to northern winters by using vehicle wheel wells to stay warm – hence the preference for large store parking lots. Biologist Jim Hawkings says warmer winters and a ready food supply may have boosted the Yukon’s population.
In the south, house sparrows, which also eat seeds, are considered a farm pest. In many large cities they are derided as a “blight” like starlings. They can compete with native species at city bird feeders and bird houses. But their numbers are dropping in many areas, particularly in the United Kingdom.
While attracted to human-made structures – they have been caught up in the shopping carts outside one grocery store, our house sparrows haven’t ruffled a lot of feathers here so far.
Dr. Katie Aitken, an ornithology instructor at Yukon College, says it’s “unknown” if Yukon’s house sparrow population will expand to become a problem downtown or with bird lovers. She admits she has a soft spot for them. “It was the first species I identified when I started birding as a child down south,” she told me outside the Independent Grocer as I watched a sparrow climb into a lamp-post.
Wherever people go, so goes the house sparrow. I’ve enjoyed their company on the beach in Hawaii, and their noisy cheeps inside airports in Victoria and Halifax. (They can learn to activate automatic doors – once they were seen in Superstore’s dairy section.)
Some tallies estimate there are 50 million pairs on the planet.
Have you seen house sparrows in Whitehorse? Record your observations on eBird or send an email to the YukonBirdClub@gmail.com