A craving for a cheap glimpse of green on a cold Maine day recently drove me into the nearest Home Depot. I was rustling among the dracaenas when my husband, Tom, beckoned me. "There are birds in here," he said.
I followed him down the aisles and soon heard a chirp over my head. Perched over a display of work gloves was a house sparrow, a dun-colored denizen of city sidewalks. Two more fluttered down and sat beside it and a fourth landed on a bale of paper towels. One swooped over my head and landed behind me on the concrete floor to peck black sunflower seeds and millet that had spilled from the birdseed bags filling the shelves. These birds have found the Promised Land: plenty of food and no hawks.
I asked a salesperson about the sparrows. "Oh, they live here all their lives," she said. "They're born in here, make nests, and die in here. I had to put a fake owl up over the kitchen and bath display because I can't spend all my time cleaning it."
"Does the owl work?" I asked.
"As long as I keep it dusted."
She informed me that the sparrows have learned to let themselves out when they need a drink of water or a dust bath or maybe just feel like perching in a tree. When they want out, they flutter in front of the motion detector that opens the doors.
It turns out that these house sparrows aren't unique. These birds have set up housekeeping in Home Depots, Lowe's, and other big-box stores around the industrialized world. But here's the really amazing thing: from Maine to Virginia, England to Australia, and points in between, house sparrow populations everywhere have learned the motion detector trick to let themselves in and out of their cavernous homes. In other words, it appears that all these far-flung flocks have independently discovered how to use technology to their advantage.
House sparrows live on six continents, which makes them the most widely distributed bird in the world. They were introduced from England to New York in 1850 to clean up a caterpillar infestation. Instead, they preferred to feed on seeds from horse manure on the streets. The sparrows have since spread across the nation. Everywhere humans go, house sparrows follow.
Many people view house sparrows as "avian rats." They will take over bluebird nesting boxes, destroying the eggs and even attacking bluebirds themselves. Their song is no more than an incessant chirping. It has become the soundtrack to everywhere – the streets of Kabul and Honolulu, Johannesburg and Bangor.
Yet this ubiquitous bird is declining in some parts of the world. In England and Ireland, for example, house sparrow populations have dropped by 30 to 50 percent – a decline of up to 7 million birds – in the past 20 years. How much does this matter when so many more rare and beautiful birds are perched on the brink of disaster? The house sparrow's decline may be alerting us to the consequences of everything from global warming to new avian diseases, notes author and ecologist Sandra Steingraber, who writes, "The sparrow is the new canary."
I stood in the middle of the birdseed aisle at Home Depot watching the sparrows. Another shopper eyed me suspiciously when I smiled at him and pointed up at the birds. I don't care. I don't care how common the sparrows are or how drab their plumage. Under the glare of fluorescent lights, the sparrows give life and an incongruous charm to this impersonal place. They are survivors, and our lives are intertwined.