Thursday, July 27, 2017

Epilogue 2: Spare the Sparrow?

Way back at the beginning of this project, I suggested that "Bradley says a pair of house sparrows destroys 3360 caterpillars a week" helped to change the North American bird landscape, "not necessarily for the better." Here's where the story gets ironic. 

As discussed in an earlier post, house sparrows had been imported to the U.S. in the early 1850s as part of a larger effort to establish British species in America and as a means of insect control. Remember that Bradley's correspondent said that other species were surely more important in this respect than house sparrows. Regardless, in the 1860s importation ramped up. The apparent early success of the sparrow in eradicating inchworms in city parks encouraged their widespread distribution throughout the U.S. in the 1870s, despite protests by some ornithologists. But in the 1880s, they were increasingly identified as an agricultural pest and a threat to native cavity nesting birds such as the eastern bluebird, and the prevailing opinion switched from import to eradication. 

In the agricultural press, discourse about the house sparrow was mixed. While Bradley's "3360 caterpillars" was repeated again and again, an occasional warning about the bird's injury to grain fields in Europe would appear (e.g. "The Hedge Sparrow" in the New England Farmer, November 1855). In March 1862 ("Protecting the Birds") the Horticulturist reported positively on efforts by the Common Council of Brooklyn to import the birds; in September 1862 it reprinted comments by the entomologist Isaac P. Trimble at a meeting of the Brooklyn Horticultural Society strongly warning against importation--the simple examination of their beaks immediately indicated that they were primarily seed eaters. 

But even Trimble (New England Farmer, September 1867) would concede their possible value in the late 1860s, as trees in cities such as New York and New Haven appeared clear of worms. A correspondent to the Gardener's Monthly (March, 1868) exhorted farmers and fruit-growers to import sparrows "without delay." The American Agriculturist (August, 1868) introduced the house sparrow in its "Boys and Girls' Columns" as "Our New Policeman." The Ohio Farmer (Jan 9, 1869) reprinted William Cullen Bryant's "Old World Sparrow" under the headline "A plea for the birds."

In recognition, though, of the species's potential for trouble, a ghoulish sub-theme began to creep into discussion about the bird. On May 13, 1869, the Cultivator and Country Gentleman included advice from northern Italy: One means of leveraging insect consumption during the breeding season while limiting grain destruction would be to "destroy all broods after fledging until the last one." A correspondent to the same journal ("What should we do without the birds," May 5, 1870), suggested that "we should eat them" when their numbers grow too big. The editor of the Gardener's Monthly (November, 1871) noted "that when the time comes for them to put on airs, as come it will, 'a new departure,' can much more easily be inaugurated for them than for other troublesome things." These are the places a wholly utilitarian perspective on birdlife will take you...

By the mid-1870s there were warning signs that house sparrows were not going to be easily managed. The introduction of house sparrow into Australia, for example, was not going well. The Cultivator and Country Gentleman (June 11, 1874) reported that "
native birds, many of them insect eaters, have been driven away from gardens by the the pugnacious sparrows, through the rapacity of which, small fruits are devoured in a manner not before witnessed." A Brooklyn farmer, in a paper read before the New York Farmer's Club, called them "altogether the most unmitigated pest with which I ever had to contend" and cursed "the person who first suggested the idea of importing these birds [to] be doomed to an everlasting itching, without the benefit of scratching." (Rural Carolinian, September, 1874)

As anti-sparrow opinion, led by the ornithologist Elliot Coues, increased, rhetoric used in the earlier bird protection movement was deployed in defense. Henry Ward Beecher, early supporter of bird protection legislation, in one of his "Star Papers" in The Christian Union ("Sparrows to the Rescue," August 8, 1877) accused Coues of "treason" and warned that he would "be known in the kingdom of birds as a public foe."  T.M. Brewer, Coues's chief ornithological nemesis, called for "Justice for the Sparrow" in a December 1877 letter to the Boston Advertiser. Robert B. Roosevelt (Teddy's nature-loving uncle) implored readers to "Spare the Sparrow" in an October 10, 1878 Forest and Stream article. While the pro-sparrow side may have won the so-called "sparrow war" in the short-term, ultimately state-level laws promoting the sparrow's eradication emerged. 

A perfect example of the ways in which the mythical "killing birds causes insect apocalypse" narrative was used uncritically in support of the house sparrow comes from an article in the New York Times (July 9, 1883)
It is not impossible that the old story so charmingly told by LONGFELLOW in his "Birds of Killingworth" may be repeated with variations when the present warfare upon the English sparrows is pushed to the bitter end. There has been so much said for and against this little feathered alien that it is useless now to continue the discussion. Several communities are trying the experiment of exterminating the unpopular birds, and facts must eventually be cited in place of theories. The first return from the sparrow side of the controversy comes from the region of Reading, Penn., where the farmers complain that since the slaying of the birds, under the authority of a legislative enactment, there has been a marked increase in the ravages of the Hessian fly and wheat worm. The farmers say that the sparrows ate the destructive insects which now prosper under the new dispensation. The theory of the anti-sparrow people is that the native birds have been driven away by the quarrelsome strangers. If this be true, the farmers must wait until the natives find out that their foreign enemies are destroyed. Then they will return in jubilee. Meanwhile, the Hessian fly and the wheat-worm must be endured by way of concession to native Americanism in ornithology. 
The Reading Times (July 10, 1883) responded caustically:

Of course there is no ground whatever for the story. The farmers are not making war upon the sparrows, the wheat fields are not materially injured by the Hessian fly and wheat worm, though there is no telling what might happen were the sparrows exterminated under the new law which only received the signature of the Governor a few days ago.
The idea, however, that persecution of the house sparrow might have been driven in part by nativist prejudice, has re-emerged in critical theory circles as part of the general rethinking of the concept of "invasive species." Populations of house sparrows have declined so rapidly in England that nesting boxes are built just for them. Populations are also in decline in the United States, and it is an interesting question whether we will miss them if they disappear altogether. Meanwhile, this is probably the right time to admit that the image of European starlings in the background of this blog is altogether intentional. Winged Wardens indeed.

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