Why do sparrows thrive in America but not here?

Published on The Independent, by Michael McCarthy, March 4, 2011.

Last spring I spent some time in the US looking at birds in Washington DC and New York City. That’s not such an improbable idea as it may seem, for both metropolises harbour parks with wonderful wild bird populations, especially in May, when I was there: Washington has Rock Creek Park, a 2,000-acre stretch of natural forest to the north of the city centre, while New York’s Central Park is an 800-acre green glade in the forest of skyscrapers.

Both are teeming with birdlife, above all when the spring migrants arrive, the birds which winter in the Caribbean and Central America and fly up to breed in the northern US and Canada, and of these the most stunning are the warblers, the brilliantly-coloured small songbirds which have been described as “the butterflies of the bird world”. I saw several of them both in Rock Creek and Central Park, and wrote about it here; but what I did not mention were the birds I saw first in both cities, which were sparrows. 

There are more than 30 species of indigenous American sparrows (technically, they’re buntings, but sparrows is what they’re called), from the lark sparrow and the song sparrow to the white-throated sparrow, but the birds I saw in the two big cities were of solidly British origin: they were examples of the house sparrow, Passer domesticus.

If the English language is our most successful export, the house sparrow must surely run it a close second, as we have sent it, just like English itself, all over the world (birds were often taken abroad in the 19th century by British emigrants who wanted something familiar to remind them of home). Now it can be found everywhere from South America and South Africa to Australia, as well as all over the US; the first American birds were released in New York in 1850 and by 1890 the species had spanned the continent and reached California … //

… What future for our forests?

The conditions of our sparrow prize are rigorous – entries must be a scientific paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. But the terms for another £5,000 prize are less so, and that is the essay competition on The Future of England’s Forests, which we are sponsoring with the wildlife conservation charity Fauna and Flora International.

So a reminder: if you are interested, write an essay of 1,500-2,000 words on “The Future of England’s Forests” and email it to forestscompetition@independent.co.uk by midnight on 25 March 2011. A prize of £5,000 will be awarded to the writer of the essay which the judging panel considers the best, and the winning entry will be published in The Independent (subject to meeting editorial standards). For terms and conditions see independent. co.uk/legal. (full text).

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