- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular permanent resident; the House Sparrow was a common species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
Native to Eurasia, the House Sparrow now has a global distribution due to multiple introductions throughout the world. A permanent resident throughout its North American breeding range, the species is now a common species across the southern Canadian provinces and throughout the United States and entire Western Hemisphere. In the United States the highest densities occur in the largely agricultural and/or densely populated states of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Extremely high densities are also found in southern Alberta (Figure 1).
Introduced to North America in 1852, this non-native species is not a conservation concern; local populations are often managed to reduce competition for nesting cavities with native species.
A permanent resident with no migratory movements in North America.
A ground forager, House Sparrows feed primarily on grains but will supplement their diet during the breeding season with insects and other arthropods. Anyone who has observed the birds in urban settings knows they will readily consume waste food items as well.
Nest sites are quite variable, although the female prefers a site that is enclosed. Common sites include nest boxes, holes in buildings, rain gutters, dense vertical growths of ivy on buildings, and just about any hole in any man-made structure. They resort to constructing nests in trees and shrubs only when the latter options are limited or unavailable.
Roberts (1932) first observed a flock of House Sparrows in Minneapolis in the fall of 1876 only to discover later that a St. Paul resident had a dozen of the birds brought from New York and released in his garden the previous summer, in June 1875. By 1877, the House Sparrow was established as a breeding bird in the Twin Cities. The species first spread through the state by following the railroads, arriving in Fillmore County in 1886, in Duluth in 1887, along the Iron Range in 1892, and in the Red River valley about the same time.
The story of the House Sparrow in Minnesota was repeated in settlements across the United States in the late 19th century. European immigrants, eager to bring familiar elements of their homeland to America, were zealous in their efforts to introduce the House Sparrow to the United States. Some also believed the bird would be a more effective predator of insects that plagued the shade trees of their neighborhoods than native species (Roberts 1932). As mistaken as this notion was, small flocks were introduced in at least 100 cities in 33 different states and Canadian provinces in the latter half of the 19th century, including St. Paul. The first effort was in 1850, when eight pairs were imported from England to the Brooklyn Institute in New York City. Although they did not fare well when released, a second effort in 1852 was successful, and the rest is history.
It took only 40 years for the House Sparrow to occupy the United States, considerably faster than the rate of spread by the Starling, which 50 years after its initial introduction still had not reached the West Coast (Bent 1950, 1958). Multiple introductions certainly hastened the sparrow’s journey, but equally important was its dietary dependence on and attraction to grains. Its progression west followed major roads and railways, where waste grain was dropped by vehicles, horses, and railroad cars loaded with grain or cattle. Cities and towns along these lines were often the first sites where small, local breeding populations became established. These then became the source populations for further expansion into the surrounding rural towns and farmsteads (Bent 1958).
By 1932, when Roberts published his treatise on Minnesota birds, the House Sparrow was already “an abundant permanent resident, breeding throughout the state.” By 1975, Green and Janssen were able to provide further clarity on its statewide distribution, noting its presence wherever there were towns or farms. It did not occur, however, in the extensively forested landscape of northern Minnesota. A few years later, Janssen (1987) included a distribution map that identified 27 counties where the species had been confirmed nesting since 1970. Hertzel and Janssen (1998) later added an additional 11 counties to the list.
MNBBA participants tallied a total of 3,675 House Sparrow detections from 41.0% (1,979/4,831) of the surveyed atlas blocks and from 51.9% (1,212/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding evidence was collected in 822 (17.0%) atlas blocks surveyed (Figure 2 and 3; Table 1). House Sparrows were reported from every county except Cook. Breeding was confirmed in all but 3 counties: Cook, Koochiching, and Lake. The species remains uncommon throughout the most extensively forested landscapes of northeastern and far north-central Minnesota.
The MNBBA predicted distribution map predicts that the highest breeding densities are associated with the biggest human population centers in southern and western Minnesota (Figure 4). The Twin Cities region, Rochester, and St. Cloud are among the sites of high-predicted House Sparrow densities. Breeding densities are moderate throughout the southern half of Minnesota and north through the Red River valley. Densities are predicted to be extremely low throughout the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province with the exception of the Iron Range in St. Louis and Itasca Counties and the cities and smaller communities that dot the landscape.
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.