Monday, August 1, 2016

An ominous development (1851-1855)

New York had an inchworm problem in 1851.

A correspondent in the New York Evening Post (July 1, 1851) complained:
The trees in the city of Brooklyn have suffered greatly in their foliage by worms. Even the... silver-leafed poplar, which has been thought worm-proof, shows, in many places, the ravages of the insect among its leaves. The weeping willow has suffered to a degree that we think we have never seen before; its long twigs hang in some of the streets and churchyards as bare as in winter. 
The solution? Straight from the "spare the birds" narrative.
If we had a race of birds in our town like the house-sparrows of Europe, which are there almost as numerous as the human inhabitants, we are persuaded that the nuisance would not exist. Is there no way of introducing these birds? 
The introduction of non-native birds was a distinct possibility when it came to controlling insects. See for example a report (July 1852) in the Cultivator about the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii]. 
The birds of the islands are of few varieties, and not very numerous--they are found chiefly among the mountains….In the neighborhood of the sea-shore, a variety of plover exists; but as the rage for sporting is here, the birds do not increase. Sparrows and robins would be of great utility in destroying the worms which so molest the crops. It is hoped that they will be introduced soon from Oregon.
In fact, by 1852, the introduction of non-native birds to the New York area was well underway. An article in The Plough, the Loom, and the Anvil (May, 1854) provided a hint:
The following was brought out in one of the discussions of the American Institute, at a late meeting of the Farmers' Club: Mr. Hooper, a distinguished naturalist of this city, read a paper upon the introduction of the song-birds of Europe into this country. He stated that in 1852, a committee of gentlemen undertook to introduce these birds into Greenwood Cemetery. Mr. Woodcock, of Brooklyn, then in England, introduced fifty goldfinches, fifty English larks, fifty robin red-breasts, and some others, which have been let loose in the groves of the cemetery. These are now probably well established upon Long Island. 
The original report provides more details. The birds were not released to be useful. They appealed to another motive for bird protection: aesthetics. Importing non-native birds was no different that introducing non-native flowers.
The lover of his country is well pleased at every improvement calculated to bring forth and develop the resources of that country, and thereby secure its permanent prosperity. But his wishes and hopes are not confined to the actual utilitarian improvements, but extend to the ornamental and beautiful; and though his chief efforts are directed to accomplish the first, his heart exults with delight at the discovery or addition of any object which will increase the beauty, and expand the pleasurable interests of the land. 
It was with such sentiments as these, that a few individuals, members of the natural history department of the Brooklyn Institute, were embed, when they expressed the desire to import the choicest song birds of England, with the hope of acclimating them to this country, that they might thereby realize the long cherished idea of increasing the beautiful, the poetic charms, always abounding in the feathered races around our dwellings. They had seen or read of the enthusiastic feeling created feeling created in England by the charming melody of their songsters. They had read the poet's eulogy, they had seen the naturalist's delight in speaking of the nightingale, the song thrush, and the black bird. They had witnessed the fullness of heart in which the very clod-breaking emigrant spoke of the skylark, and that even the time worn, and hope broken amongst them, amid penury and want, with none but heedless strangers near, would look up with smiling memory at the mention of robin red-breast.
 The experiment had the full cooperation of Greenwood Cemetery. In addition to the birds listed in The Plough, the Loom, and the Anvil notice above, they released 20 blackbirds and 20 thrushes. "Larks" included both skylarks and woodlarks. There was no mention of house sparrows.

Other releases were motivated by utility. The 1854 Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents includes a paper titled "On the Importation and Protection of Useful Birds." The useful bird especially targeted for introduction was the skylark. In fact, skylarks had been introduced to the New York area as early as the 1830s, and repeated attempts across the country were attempted. (There is still a small extant community in British Columbia). 

The worms were bad again in 1855. By July they had turned to moths. The editors of the New York Times made a plea (July 10):
The worms on the trees have retired from sight. Some, indeed, have gone through the retirement of the chrysalis state, and now flutter on wings. Hence the myriads of white butterflies that so much amuse the children in Washington-square and Union-park, and are covering the leaves of all trees but the ailanthus with eggs for the next year's harvest of worms. Won't the Farmer's Club please tell us how to kill the next season's crop while in the egg?
Three days later, a reader repeated the call:
It is no longer the "inch-worm," but the measure worm, who spans at a leap one and half to two inches, having outgrown his "inch" dimensions this fruitful season. Mr. TIMES, not wishing to take the business of answering your question from the hands of the Farmers' Club, I would suggest instant death to every miller, regardless of its spotless white, and all millers, bugs, beetles, and butterflies, which leave their vermin behind them. Do we not kill cockroaches, mosquitoes, flies, spiders, and all such like? Do not let the beautiful wings of the miller and butterfly deter you in doing your duty.
The correspondent recommended a number of specific treatments to control the infestations. But on July 17 came a renewed call for help from the birds:
Seeing loud calls made in your paper for aid from the Farmers' Club against the fearful inroads made on your trees, and being of the opinion that appeals to Farmers' Clubs are about as useful in such cases as appeals to the British Government were amidst the starvation in the Crimea, I will suggest a remedy. I mean the common, half-domesticated house sparrow, such as is known to every child in Great Britain, and is, I believe, native to nearly all temperate parts of the world except this country, being larger in its size and brighter in its plumage in climates yet more congenial to it than the British Islands. 
I suppose that a couple of hundred of these birds might be had for two or three cents apiece in Liverpool and if properly taken care of on the passage might easily be landed in New-York, per steamer, in tolerable order; and they would destroy immense numbers of your troublesome insects. It is probably that they would increase so rapidly, if not destroyed by man--that they would thoroughly check the nuisance of which you complain. 
I have often hoped to immortalize myself by introducing this impudent and useful bird to New York and intend to bring some of them over if I should ever visit England. It is certainly less melodious than the lark, which I see by your paper of yesterday is fully naturalized on Long Island, but is not a migratory bird, and is very hardy, and its utility would reconcile New-Yorkers to any harshness in its chirpings, which to me, probably from early associations, appear very cheerful.
The early history of house sparrow introductions is murky. Some accounts have the Brooklyn Institute releasing a small group in Greenwood as early as 1850. Soon, however, there would be successful releases in cities across the United States and Americans would see first hand how rapidly the numbers of house sparrows would increase.

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