Dear Bird Folks,
Every once in a while I see a group of sparrows that seem to be involved in some sort of gang fight. It looks like an entire flock of House Sparrows is picking on a lone House Sparrow. I usually run out to break it up, but now I’m wondering what is going on. What’s up with the fighting sparrows?
– dKelly, S. Yarmouth, MA
Great name, dKelly,
I don’t mean yours, which is awesome. I’m talking about the “Fighting Sparrows.” Doesn’t it sound like a cool nickname for a college sports team? (Well, it would be cool if all the students were bird watchers. Other than that, the name would be pretty lame.) By the way, there are some real colleges with some real nicknames that are even stranger. One California school is known as the “Banana Slugs.” (They probably have a really bad track team.) Arizona has a community college known is the “Artichokes.” (Most likely a school for vegetarians.) And one West Coast college is called the “Poets.” (Poets? Do you think they have ever won a game?) If the Fighting Sparrows was the real nickname of a college sports team it probably wouldn’t instill much fear into the opponents, but it should. Pound for pound, House Sparrows are one of our toughest birds. They have been known to attack and kill birds larger than they are. And if they can kill larger birds, just think what they would do to the Banana Slugs, Artichokes or Poets.
House Sparrows are one of the world’s most successful bird species. They can be found in just about all corners of the globe (a globe with corners?) and you can bet they didn’t become so widespread by being sissies. House Sparrows are extremely aggressive birds and are willing to take on all comers. They have been known to attack at least seventy different species of birds, but the one species they seem to fight with the most is each other.
I grew up in an Irish Catholic neighborhood. Every family had about thirty kids each. (Well, every family except ours. My sister is only child.) One of the largest and most prosperous families on the street (they had a two-car garage) fought with each other day and night. Even in the winter, when we had our windows closed tight, we could still hear them yelling at each other. We used to think this family was crazy, and they probably were, but they were also self-preservationists. Each family member was constantly challenging other family members for the last brownie, or whose turn it was to wash the dishes or what to watch on TV. (They had two cars, but only one TV. I told you they were crazy.) Houses Sparrows are like a large, assertive family. They are always trying to challenge other flock members for dominance and, of course, the last brownie.
While the female House Sparrows are rather dull, generic sparrow-looking birds, the males have a large black bib on their throat and chest. Some studies have suggested that the bigger and blacker the bib, the more dominant the bird. Others have suggested that the blacker bib is merely a product of age. Whatever. Bibs aside, there is little doubt that each flock has a dominant male and all other members are subordinate to him. When he arrives at a food source, all of the birds get out of his way – much like we get out of the way when a fat guy arrives at a buffet table. Every once in a while, however, a subordinate sparrow grows tired of being pushed around by old King Black Bib and the fight is on.
Typically, it only takes a bit of feather fluffing and some serious eye contact to get the interloper to back down. If that doesn’t work, the dominant bird will lunge at the challenger with its beak open, grab the bird and give it a good shake. The last step is an out-and-out battle. Sparrow fights are ugly. Occasionally, one bird ends up being badly injured, dead or worse. (I don’t know what could be “worse” than being dead, but I thought saying it would paint a more dramatic picture.) As you can imagine, such battles don’t go unnoticed by the other flock members. They usually gather around the combatants, forming a circle and screaming words that only other sparrows understand. The whole scene looks like a wild, out-of-control fight on a school playground, or the streets of Vancouver after a hockey game.
On the whole House Sparrows are quarrelsome birds. When they aren’t having major battles, they are squabbling and yapping at each other over the crisis of the moment. They also form large roosting flocks during the non-breeding season. Just before they settle down for the night, there is much chirping and agitation within the flock. This doesn’t mean the birds are upset with each other; they are just a little cranky because it’s bedtime. I think we all know what that’s like.
What you witnessed, dKelly, was most likely a confrontation between a challenger and the head of the flock. Rarely are these battles fatal, so don’t lose any sleep over them. If you find the fights upsetting, go do something else. Don’t feel like you need to break them up. House Sparrows are an extremely successful species. The system they have in place is working just fine. However, if you really want to breakup a fight, take a trip to Vancouver. They could use the help.