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Cracker Crumbs for the Sparrows

As the English sparrow, a.k.a. the house sparrow, Passer domesticus, made its way from New York, where it was introduced in the 1850s, to Dakota Territory in the 1880s, prairie folk braced themselves for the invasion. The US Department of Agriculture, in a 405-page farmer’s bulletin of 1889, warned them of “the obnoxious character of the English sparrow.”

In 1883 the Bismarck Tribune remarked smugly, “it is true that an English sparrow was never seen in Bismarck.” In 1904 the same paper would notice that house sparrows had made themselves at home among the rafters supporting the tile roof of the NP depot. In response the railroad filled in the cavities under the roof--thus shifting the problem to others in the capital city. So the evidence is the English sparrow invested North Dakota over the final two decades of the nineteenth century.

The first definite documentation of the bird’s presence comes in the 1890s. The Cooperstown Courier declared it a “nuisance” in 1897. The Langdon Courier Democrat observed in 1899, “The only bird that does not seem to have suffered from the cold weather of this winter is, as you have surmised, the English sparrow.”

In 1901 the Bismarck Tribune, while not yet admitting it had invasive sparrows, remarked they were “on the increase at Jamestown and threaten to become a genuine nuisance.” A Jamestown editor admitted in reply, “The increase in English sparrows is quite noticeable this spring and their nests are seen in many buildings. The pugnacious little bird has become a resident the year around and is getting to be a nuisance.”

The record reveals no organized resistance to the invasion, however. The editor in Jamestown said a local lady had succeeded in driving the birds away from her sweet peas. She hung an American flag above the flowers and swore that English sparrows feared to venture near.

It seems people were interested in the new arrivals, but not alarmed; they were learning about them. The editor in Bottineau in 1906 noted that severe cold had killed quite a few sparrows, and no one was mourning them. In a story probably related, the editor in Minot the following summer wondered, “What has become of the English sparrows which for years have hopped about the streets of Minot?”

Conversely, a correspondent in Bowbells in 1911 wrote, “For some reason or other there are more English sparrows in the city than for many years past. . . . Where they come from when they are numerous and where they go to when they are not in evidence are questions that have not yet been decided.”

No one seemed interested in taking up the suggestion from the USDA that sparrows might have culinary value. “The English sparrow,” wrote the editor of the Hope Pioneer, “would be popular as a food if it were not for the fact that it takes several dozen to make a respectable mouthful.”

It’s an open question why Dakotans did not join in the sparrow panic that swept much of the rest of the country. The answer may be that elsewhere, a major point of grievance was the way the sparrows displaced other, more desirable songbirds around the home and garden. This leads me to believe that in the early decades of settlement, especially before the establishment of trees in the towns, there just were not many such birds to be displaced. Here is a clue: the editor in Minot in 1910 observed that there were “a number of people” in the Magic City who were “in the habit of feeding the birds [sparrows] at their doors every morning with bread and cracker crumbs and scraps.”

The pesky birds we shoo away from our feeders today, early townsfolk of the prairies welcomed as cheerful singers and companions.

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