Finding Adventure in Studying House Sparrows

Suzanne spent some time the last two weeks in Lexington, Kentucky visiting researchers, including Dr. Dave Westneat, who are doing work involving house sparrows at the University of Kentucky. Dave Westneat has been studying house sparrows for over 25 years. Dave has written in that past that:

“choosing to study House Sparrows would seem to ensure one a dull life. No adventures or extraordinary bravery in the face of extreme conditions are necessary. With some common birds, such as Red-winged Blackbirds, one can at least imagine being a stoic adventurer who slogs through impenetrable marsh in pursuit of (somewhat) elusive quarry. There simply is no romance in studying sparrows. Yet House Sparrows offer another kind of adventure—of a more intellectual nature. And as one comes to know these birds intimately, they emerge as creatures both charming and mysterious.”

Because they are so common and not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, house sparrows have served as a perfect study organism for researchers, including Westneat and the Sparrow Swap Team, to study many different aspects of general bird biology.

Currently most of the research Dave and his team are conducting involves studying the behavior of house sparrows. During a year where they had a high population of house sparrows, Dave’s team noticed that entire broods were dying within the first 72 hours of hatching. They think that with so many pairs looking for suitable nesting sites, there is more prospecting of birds into nestboxes already inhabited. The pair of house sparrows currently using the nestbox may then spend more time defending their nest than providing food for the hatchlings! Since observing this phenomena, they have just started conducting aggression tests to see how house sparrow pairs respond to a stuffed house sparrow “intruder” that is placed on the side of the nestbox during the first few days after hatching. The Sparrow Swap Team is looking forward to following up with them in the future to see what they discover!