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The singing sparrows of Shishmaref

Submitted by Ned Rozell
Phone: 907-474-7468

04/29/08

Photo caption below.
Photo by Ken Stenek
A house sparrow perches on a metal railing in the Seward Peninsula village of Shishmaref.
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This just in from Shishmaref science teacher Ken Stenek: On this late April day, two house sparrows are singing their little hearts out while perched on the metal roof of the Shishmaref School. This is unusual, because the closest brethren of the tiny birds are at least several hundred miles away, with most of the population many thousands of miles away.

Stenek, who for the last decade has lived in the village on the exposed sand spit just above the Bering Sea, saw a group of about five birds near the school last October. At least two of them seem to have survived a harsh winter in the windy village, and birders have taken note.

The "house sparrow is a very rare visitor anywhere in Alaska, with only a few records in the state," wrote renowned birder David Sibley on his blog. "Interestingly, one of the few prior Alaska records comes from Gambell, on St Lawrence Island, in mid-summer about 15 years ago. So the question is whether these (Shishmaref) birds, at the very western edge of Alaska, came from North America or Asia."

House sparrows are one of the most common birds in the Lower 48, but they don't normally occur farther north than about Fort Nelson, British Columbia. The same species occurs in Asia, but thousands of miles southwest of Alaska.

Stenek first identified the Shishmaref sparrows when he e-mailed a photo to Dan Gibson, an ornithology research associate at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Gibson replied: "Where in the world did you get those pictures of house sparrows?"

In Fairbanks, from his office at the museum, Gibson recently said that if house sparrows are indeed residing in Shishmaref, they might have reached there from the Russian Far East. Though naturally occurring populations of house sparrows do not exist close to northeastern Russia, people have introduced the house sparrow to communities there several times in the recent past. People brought a few house sparrows from Moscow to Provideniya in the early 1990s, Gibson said. Shortly thereafter, a group of researchers on a birding fieldtrip to Gambell found a dead house sparrow in the dump there and brought it back to the museum in Fairbanks. It was only the second specimen of a house sparrow from Alaska; the other was a bird found in Petersburg. As for the Shishmaref sparrows, Gibson had many questions on how such a bird survived the winter in a place with such brutal weather.

"What are they doing to sustain themselves during the winter, where are they roosting, where are they feeding?" he asked. "I would have expected a bird like that to perish during the winter."

He thinks that the Shishmaref sparrows are probably from one of the communities in eastern Russia where people imported and released them in the recent past. Another researcher has a theory that the Shishmaref birds are the result of range expansion, but Gibson doubts that.

"I think it's unlikely this would be a case of natural range expansion in Asia, because of the absence of appropriate habitat and a good travel corridor," he said.

Stenek has a guess that the birds couldn't have survived a trip across the Bering Strait, and that they may have hitched a ride in one of the many large boxes on a barge that came up last fall. Right now, the origin of the birds is a mystery, and the two male house sparrows sing from the roof of the Shishmaref School, calling for a mate that probably isn't there.

This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute. To view past columns or to subscribe, visit www.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum/index.html.

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