In every town in the region, house sparrows are common. They’re rarely seen far from a town, and as an exotic invading species they spread remarkably fast across the United States.
According to the literature, the honor of being the first to introduce the House Sparrow to the Western Hemisphere belongs to a Dr. Salmon Skinner, a Brooklyn dentist. An old sea captain taking the doctor’s chair found on his clothing some of the inch worms which destroyed the foliage of Brooklyn’s shade trees each June. He remarked that such a thing could not happen in London as the sparrows would exterminate them. At Skinner’s request he brought over a crate of 100 sparrows in 1848. They did not survive their release.
In 1850 the Brooklyn Academy of Arts and Sciences, of which Skinner was a member, sponsored the importation of eight pairs in an attempt to control the worms, but in spite of careful attention, they didn’t survive their release either.
A committee of the Institute in 1852, headed by Nicholas Pike, subscribed two hundred dollars for the purchase of more sparrows and hired a man to care for them. They prospered and Pike documented the spread of the sparrow for another 50 years, dying convinced that he had rendered a service to his country.
Other cities with insect problems quickly began to import sparrows. They were well established in Quebec by 1864 and brought to Galveston in 1867, San Francisco soon afterward, and then Michigan, Wisconsin, Utah. Philadelphia bought 1000 sparrows in 1869.
They were welcomed everywhere. Clubs were formed, and the sparrow became a status symbol. One wealthy man maintained an elaborate aviary and when cats attacked the overflow, he had the cats exterminated. However, when the native birds disappeared from the neighborhood, he baited trenches with food and eliminated the sparrows with buckshot.
Paradise did not last. Philadelphia found that the inchworms were gone in five years, but they were replaced with a hairy caterpillar the sparrows would not eat. By 1885 complaints were heard from around the country and bounties were put on the sparrow. The birds ate large quantities of grain, fruits, vegetables; they drove away native birds, and they soiled the cities. It was discovered that the English were amazed that Americans would deliberately import such a worthless bird. Anti-sparrow organizations had existed in England since 1744 and almost every parish was spending money to destroy sparrows.
A government report in 1888 outlined the magnitude of the problem. In 1860, the sparrows occupied 15, 650 square miles. By 1886 it was 885,000 square miles. An estimate of forty million sparrows alone was considered a low figure. Stomach examination showed that insects were eaten only to be fed to nestlings. Otherwise the year around diet consisted of grain and weed seeds. The impact of this report did not prevent the introduction of the European starling in 1890, and that invasive bird soon spread across the country as well. The house sparrow occurs naturally in most of Europe, the Mediterranean, and much of Asia. Its introduction to Australia, Africa, and the Americas make it the most widely distributed bird in the world.
The House Sparrow is a social bird, and is gregarious at all seasons when feeding, It also roosts communally, its big bulky nests made of grass are usually grouped together in clumps. And it engages in social activities such as dust and water bathing, and “social singing”, in which birds call together in bushes. The House Sparrow feeds mostly on the ground. The males have black bibs, while the females are lack distinctive coloration.
Nature Notes is sponsored by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by KRTS Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Burr Williams of the Sibley Nature Center.