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Nature Photography - Done Naturally

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Photo of the Week (May 6th, 2018)

(archive photos of the week here)

The best moments in birding are those that are completely unexpected. They can happen anywhere!  Sometimes, yes, they happen when you're out birding. Sometimes they happen when you're simply running errands.  And sometimes, they happen when you're working at home, look out the sunroom window, and see a bird that has NO business being there!  But yet there it is, right in front of your eyes! The latter describes the morning of May 3rd, 2018.  I was going to work that day but woke with a horrible headache, and thought I'd take it easy and work at home that day. Around 11:00 AM, I got up to stretch, went over to the sunroom, and saw some birds in the back of the yard. I grabbed my binoculars and started to focus when one flew directly towards me, landing in a small crab apple that sits mere feet from our window.

Immediately your mind thinks "House Sparrow" and wants to move on to other things, but this was no House Sparrow!  That beautiful, rich brown cap, plus the white cheek and black 'ear' made it quite obvious what I was seeing...a Eurasian Tree Sparrow!  As I watched for a second, ANOTHER bird flew into the same tree. Another one!  Along with my binoculars, I almost always have my camera by that window, so I quickly grabbed it and started shooting photo after photo.  The pair moved about in the tree about, staying for perhaps a minute and a half and offering as many photo opportunities as I wanted.  They literally could not have picked a better location in the entire yard for viewing and photos!

So why is this unusual? Until two weeks prior, no Eurasian Tree Sparrow had EVER been seen in South Dakota. At that time, the Small family in Vermillion briefly had a lone bird at their feeders. They took a photo that unmistakably showed a Eurasian Tree Sparrow...the first ever seen in the state!  I admit it was that sighting that had me somewhat attuned to looking for them.  Without that sighting 2 weeks before, I'm not sure I would have paid much attention to the "House Sparrows" in the back of the yard!

Eurasian Tree Sparrows were imported into the country in 1870, when a landowner wanted birds from his homeland back in Europe.  They were released in the St. Louis, Missouri area, and while they bred and survived...they never really spread very far. For well over 100 years, Eurasian Tree Sparrows in North America were something you could only see if you visited this very small area of far western Missouri, eastern Illinois, and a little bit into far southeastern Iowa.  There were never any sightings that were all that far from their established range. Speculation was that they could not compete with the more aggressive House Sparrow, and thus never spread across the country like House Sparrows did.

Something may be changing, however. In the last few decades, there have been some indications that the species has been increasing in numbers and spreading to the north from their original range. The first record in the state of Nebraska occurred in 2007.  There have only been about 10 records in the state of Minnesota. North Dakota has 2 sightings, with both occurring since 2016.   A paper published in 2017 by Jessica Burnett at the University of Nebraska (a fellow Husker, of course!) used Christmas Bird Count data from 1951 to 2014 to look at a potential range expansion of the species, and she did find a statistically significant range shift to the north during that time period.  A glance at Eurasian Tree Sparrow sightings recorded in eBird show a smattering of records around their normal, small range, but some of those points are as far north as Winnipeg or Regina in Canada.  House Sparrow numbers have been declining in North America (and in Europe as well). Given the theory about Eurasian Tree Sparrows being unable to directly compete with the larger, more aggressive House Sparrow, perhaps an ongoing range expansion is related to the decline of the latter species.

All because of a crushing headache when I woke up! I saw one briefly, two more times that day, but they have not returned to my yard.  If I had gone to work as usual on that day, I would have missed the wonderful new yard visitor entirely.  Serendipity...a birder's best friend!  You can be sure I'll  continue to keep an eye out for them in my yard and elsewhere as I bird around South Dakota. 

Eurasian Tree Sparrow - Passer montanus

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