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Java Sparrows

Dear Bird Folks,

I was stuck in my hotel room in Oahu, totally bored and waiting for the rain to stop, when suddenly this pretty bird (see attached photo) landed on the railing of my balcony. Since seeing this bird was the most exciting part of my day I decided to snap its picture with my iPhone. Any idea what kind of bird it is?

– Stephanie, Woodbury, TN (and Hawaii for two more weeks)


I feel so bad for you, Stephanie,

You poor kid, stuck in the rain in Hawaii. Man, I hate to see you suffering like that. Hey, wanna trade places? I’d do that for you. I could stand a little HI time right now and I think you’d like it here. You know how fabulous Massachusetts is in January. It’s lovely, if you don’t mind a little cold. How cold is it? The other day it was so cold that both Walt Disney and Ted Williams were feeling bad for us. That’s cold.

The bird in your photo is a Java Sparrow. Before you get too excited about the bird’s name, you should know that the Java Sparrow doesn’t smell or taste anything like coffee. (I made that mistake once.) This bird isn’t named after a hot beverage. It is named after the even hotter Indonesian island of Java, which is where the bird is normally found. Also, you shouldn’t be disappointed to learn that your mystery bird is nothing more than a sparrow. It’s not what you think. Here in the New World the plumages of our sparrows are typically an assortment of brown, brown and brown. But the Old World sparrows are really more like finches. They can be strikingly colorful, often looking like tiny parrots. The Java Sparrow isn’t like any sparrow you will see in North America. It has a sleek gray back, a pinkish belly and a jet-black head, plus bright white cheeks and a gaudy red beak. Many people find this bird attractive, but to me it looks like a tiny cast member in some French medieval play.

Due to their attractiveness these little birds have long been victims of the caged bird industry. In the wild they nest in colonies and in the non-breeding season they roost and feed in huge flocks. This makes it easy to capture hundreds of them at one time. As far back as the Ming Dynasty, China has been a prime market for caged Java Sparrows. And the few birds that weren’t sold in cages ended up on the dinner plate, because in addition to being attractive, Java Sparrows are also good eating. (Maybe they taste like coffee after all.)

Not everyone is in love with Java Sparrows, however. It seems the birds are particularly fond of rice and the farmers in Indonesia don’t like anything that eats their rice, unless they pay for it, which the sparrows rarely do. A large flock of hungry sparrows can quickly inflict considerable damage to a ripening rice paddy. To protect their crops the local farmers have heavily persecuted Java Sparrows. As you can imagine, this persecution has led to a dramatic drop in their population. Today Java Sparrows may actually be more common in parts of the world where they have been introduced and not so common in their native Java.

The first Java Sparrows arrived in Hawaii in the mid-1800s but they didn’t stay long. Back then Hawaii was not the place to be. They were not seen again until the 1960s when a few (probably escaped caged birds) were spotted at feeders near Diamond Head. Over the decades their population has been increasing. In recent years they have even spread to the Big Island (and to some of the other islands that I don’t know how to spell). Because Java Sparrows readily take advantage of human handouts they are often seen in backyards, around public buildings and in parks. Last year a friend of mine in Maui told me that she put up a birdfeeder in her backyard, but took it down two days later when a flock of Java Sparrows came and dominated the feeder. Huh? It amazes me when people put out birdfeeders and then get upset when birds eat from them. I wonder what they were expecting.

Java Sparrows don’t do well in cold weather, so we aren’t likely to find them breeding on the mainland, unless global warming really kicks into high gear. Even Java Sparrows that have escaped captivity in warmer states such as Florida haven’t produced sustainable populations. Because of their dwindling numbers in their native Indonesia, the United States has outlawed the importation of wild Java Sparrows. However, pet shops and private individuals are still allowed to have and breed caged Java Sparrows. This is true in most states except California. In California folks aren’t even allowed to have Java Sparrows as pets. Why? Agriculture officials are afraid that escapees might damage valuable produce. The economy of California depends on successfully growing crops, especially rice, almonds and medical marijuana.

I hope your weather improves, Stephanie. I know it’s no fun being on vacation while it’s raining. If it’s any consolation, you can be sure it will stop raining in Oahu long before it stops being cold in Massachusetts. We aren’t scheduled for another warm day until sometime in late June. BTW: Nice job taking the picture of that Java Sparrow with your iPhone. It’s not an easy thing to do. The first ten photos I took with my iPhone ended up being pictures of my own eye. Hey, maybe they should change the name to “eye-Phone.” That would make sense to me.