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The Obnoxious Character of the English Sparrow

Just a few years ago—2018, by my notes—I was wondering what had happened to the English sparrows, a.k.a. house sparrows, that I had cussed for years as they cleaned out my bird feeders. A quick internet search disclosed that the sparrow disappearance was a global phenomenon, some sort of plague that had swept across Asia and Europe and North America. Not to worry, the sparrows are back now and as voracious as ever.

Maybe I did miss them a little bit, though, and I even have some sympathy for them huddling in the lilacs this bitter winter. Our historical relationship with the English sparrow is ambivalent.

There is a classic text of environmental history from New Zealand entitled, Tutira: The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station, by Herbert Guthrie-Smith. Guthrie-Smith was an observer and a note-taker, by which we know that in October 1882 a band of English sparrows lit on his woodpile in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island.

The species had been introduced at Auckland, in the north end of the country, in 1867. Guthrie-Smith was not alarmed at their arrival fifteen years later at his station. Rather his tone is one of admiration for these doughty creatures who had made their way hundreds of miles cross-country by way of pioneer tracks, subsisting on waste grain and dung heaps along the way.

A few years later, in 1895, a Kansas homesteader came in for dinner and seemed lost in contemplation. Henry Ise—as recounted in the memoir of his son, Professor John Ise, Sod and Stubble—finally said to the family, “I heard something today that I haven’t heard for many years—not since I left the Old Country”—referring to his German boyhood.

Mr. Ise had discovered English sparrows chirping about the neighbor’s blacksmith shop. He said, “It seemed like the old home in Sindringen to hear them. We always had so many there, in every stone building, and I thought I would never hear one again.” The memory moved him to tears.

So I no longer begrudge the sparrows whatever portion of sunflower they may take. Our forebears on the northern plains, however, were not so gracious. Before the birds even arrived on the prairies, the US Department of Agriculture had apprised us they were to be despised. Indeed, Farmer’s Bulletin No. 1 of the USDA, 1889, is The English Sparrow (Passer domesticus) in North America, Especially in Its Relations to Agriculture—405 pages.

As recounted in FB No. 1, English sparrows, eight pairs, were first introduced to New York City in 1850 by Nicolas Pike, director of the Brooklyn Institute. This first attempt came to naught, but subsequent ones took. Moreover, as the birds broke out of the locality, they were assisted by countless citizens who fed them and transported them to new locales. People liked them.

English sparrows, unfortunately, have a powerful craving for certain grains, among them oats, which were grown and used for horse feed across the country. The USDA, therefore, encouraged the citizenry to make war on sparrows by shooting them, trapping them, and destroying their nests. Authorities encouraged the organization of sparrow clubs to sponsor shooting contests, meanwhile suggesting people should learn to eat the avian morsels. They even suggested poisoning with strychnine.

English sparrows had begun to show up in eastern Dakota Territory. There were none in Bismarck in 1883, but likely they were making their way west along the railroad lines. Territorial papers warned they were coming. They established themselves during the 1890s. In November 1897 the Cooperstown Courier lamented, “The English sparrows and the festive bootlegger linger in our law abiding community. Both have been declared nuisances.” This was not to be the last word.

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