The European House-Sparrow

“You call them thieves and pillager; but know
They are, the winged wardens of your farms,
Who from the cornfields drive the insidious foe,
And from your harvests keep a hundred harms :
Crushing the beetle in his coat of mail,
And crying havoc on the sing and snail.”

LONGFELLOW’S Birds of Killingworth.

SOME twelve months since, at a social assembly of literary and scientific gentlemen in Boston, mention was made of the experiment tried in New York of introducing and naturalizing among us the common and familiar house-sparrow of Europe. The experiment, it was stated, had been, so far, signally successful. The birds had thriven, increased in numbers, and were fully accomplishing all that had been anticipated from them, in warring upon the insects so injurious to the foliage of the shade-trees of that city. At the same meeting one of our distinguished sawas expressed grave apprehensions — founded upon the alleged destructive habits of these birds, especially that of preying upon the ripening grain-— lest their general introduction into the United States might be followed by calamitous results. Subsequently, at a meeting of the Boston Society of Natural History, the same gentleman read a communication characterized by his usual research, in which he presented a very dark picture of the moral character of our protégés citing voluminous authorities as to their destructiveness among the grain-fields of Europe.

We are free to confess that his very serious charges against these attractive little favorites of Young New York filled our minds with uneasiness, and even excited painful apprehensions. Yet we were loath to accept his conclusions as final. At least we would not give up their case as hopeless without looking a little further into it and judging for ourselves. We are therefore happy in being able to say, that, after diligent and careful research, we find the most conclusive evidence that there is a very bright side to the question, tending to reconcile us to whatever there may also be of a darker shading. We find that this very “devil” incarnate, as our scientific friend tells us the sparrow was called by men in olden time, has been painted a good deal blacker than his natural color. Certainly his is not a case of total depravity. The sparrow is not all evil. That he does a great deal of good is now universally admitted. The good already accomplished by the few of his race domiciled among us is indisputable and of the first importance.

Does the mischief the sparrows do exceed the good they may accomplish, or the reverse ? Should their importation into this country, and their naturalization among us, be stopped, or should it be encouraged? Must the streets of our cities be again made disagreeable throughout the earlier summer, the shade-trees swept of their leaves, and the parks and gardens disfigured, through the ravages of countless hosts of measure-worms ? Must we give up, too, all hopes of being able to rear among us, in these birds, an effectual check and safeguard against those pests of our orchards, the canker-worm, the caterpillar, and the curculio ? These were the questions we asked of ourselves, with inward misgivings, when we heard of our learned friend’s bill of indictment against the sparrow. These questions we are now able to answer to our entire satisfaction, after a full examination into all the facts of the case.

We find that if, at certain times, the sparrows do inflict some harm, the good they also do at all times far exceeds their mischief. We find, too, that if, at different periods, various people and countries, in short-sighted anger at the depredations of the sparrow, and unmindful of tire benefits it was constantly conferring in its destruction of injurious insects, have waged war upon it, they have bitterly atoned in after years tor their fatal mistake in thus exterminating their real friends. Hungary, Baden, Prussia, and different districts of France, have each in their turn learned, by a dear-bought experience, that they could not do without the sparrow.

We find that the English ornithological writers are either silent as to the mischievous character of the sparrow, or, if they refer to it, declare that the benefits it confers more than compensate for the grain it devours. To these writers we shall refer again.

Again we find that the French government have made very thorough and careful investigations into the whole subject of birds useful to agriculture; and the report from their commission is most conclusive, and in favor of our friend the sparrow, who is now protected from molestation in France by stringent laws.

We find, in the next place, that, in several well-recorded instances, the wholesale destruction of these birds has been immediately followed by calamitous consequences to agriculturists. Noxious insects, the rapid reproduction and increase of which man was totally unable to prevent, and against which he was powerless, but which the sparrow had kept in check, multiplied to a frightful extent, and swept before them the vegetables of the garden, the grass, grain, fruit-trees, and vineyards. Wherever this has happened, men have been at last only too glad to reintroduce the sparrow ; content to put up with the liberties he took in their gardens and wheat-fields for the sake of the greater good he alone could do them in the destruction of their insect pests.

In the last place, we find that, brief as has been the experiment of their naturalization in this country, it has yet been long enough to give promise of one important result, which could be obtained, so far as we know, in no other way, namely, the extermination of the measure-worm, which has been so destructive to the foliage of the shadetrees, especially the maple, in our larger cities.

The English ornithologists who are most decisively favorable to the sparrow are Bewick, Mudie, Selby, Yarrell, Thompson, and Macgillivray. They are each and all of the very best authority, careful, well-informed, and thorough masters of the science. We cannot, in the narrow limits of our article, quote from them at any length, and can only here refer, in passing, to other British ornithologists like White of Selbourne, Montagu, and many others whose silence as to any misdeeds of the sparrow is conclusive proof that they either did not admit their existence or did not attach to them any importance. Bewick, than whom no better authoritycan be cited, informs us that a single pair of sparrows, during the time they were rearing their young, had beer, known to destroy four thousand caterpillars weekly ; not to mention butterflies and other winged insects.

Mudie tells us that sparrows are indefatigable destroyers of the house-flies, and that but for them these insects would, in certain situations, multiply to such an extent as to be intolerable. He further states that, were not sparrows so incessant in the destruction of the cabbage-butterflies, not a cabbage could be reared in all the marketgardens of Great Britain ; and he adds that these birds are also eminently useful to the farmer in consuming the seeds of the more troublesome weeds, which but for them would overrun the country beyond the preventive power of human art.

Mr. Selby, one of the most careful and thorough of English naturalists, says, unhesitatingly, that in the vast numbers of larvæ, moths, and butterflies which they destroy, and with which their young are almost exclusively fed, the sparrows make the most ample compensation for the havoc they commit in the ripening fields of corn.

Yarrell, another authority hardly less unquestionable, bears very similar testimony; and Thompson, author of the Natural History of Ireland, tells us that he was himself an eyewitness to the truth of one of the many well-attested accounts that have been published of the destruction of crops by insects in consequence of the war made upon sparrows for their supposed pilfering propensities. He was in France in 1841, and was made acquainted with a recent instance of the kind. In the fine rich district of Burgundy, he states, lying to the south of Auxerre, and chiefly covered with vineyards, these birds had been, some time before, killed in great numbers. An extraordinary increase of caterpillars and other insects soon became apparent, and occasioned such immense damage to the crops that a law was passed prohibitory of the future killing of small birds, especially sparrows.

Mr. Macgillivray, who gives a very full and interesting sketch of the character and habits of the sparrows, corroborates all that is said by the above writers, both as to its destruction of injurious insects ana its consumption of the seeds of noxious weeds. He closes his sketch with the following significant sentence : “ A village without sparrows has as desolate an aspect as a house without children ; but, fortunately for the world, the one is nearly as rare as the other.”

In the Bulletin Mensuel de la Société Protectrice des Animaux for July, 1861, may be found a copy of the report made in the Senate of the French Empire, on the 27th of June, 1861, by the committee of that body to whose consideration had been referred certain memorials praying for laws to protect birds that destroy injurious insects. After giving a very interesting account of the thorough and satisfactory examinations of the stomachs of different birds, and the demonstration thus obtained of the valuable services rendered to agriculture by a large variety of them, the report goes on to vindicate the house-sparrow in a manner perfectly conclusive. We transcribe in English this portion of the report: “ The most ill-famed of this class of doubtful reputation (granivores) is, without question, the common sparrow, so often denounced as an impudent thief. Yet, if the facts presented in the documents before us may be trusted, in spite of the unjust prejudices of many, this bird is a far better friend to us than he is generally supposed. In fact, it is there shown, that once, when a price had been set upon its head in Hungary, and, at another time, when the same was done in Baden, this intelligent victim of unjust proscription was completely driven, for a while, from both countries. But soon the inhabitants found, to their cost, that the sparrows alone had been able to wage a successful war against the cockchafer and thousands of others of the winged insects that infest the low lands. The very men who had so inconsiderately offered premiums for their destruction were induced to take the most energetic measures for their restoration to these countries. The double expense to which they were thus subjected was a suitable punishment for their hasty measures.”

Frederick the Great of Prussia, as is shown in these same documents, also waged war in his day against the sparrow, because he did not respect his favorite fruit, the cherry. The sparrow, of course, yielded to the conqueror of Austria, and disappeared from Prussia. But, at the end of two years, not only were there no cherries in all Prussia, but also hardly any other kind of fruit. The caterpillars destroyed all. And this great king, conqueror in so many battle-fields, was glad to sign an humble treaty of peace, and to surrender up a fair proportion of his cherries to the sparrow, once more restored to the country and to royal favor.

More than this, it is fully shown from the investigations of M. Florent-Prevost, that, according to circumstances, insects form from at the least one half to by far the largest proportion of the daily food of the sparrow. It is exclusively with insects that it nourishes its greedy brood, and this witness cites one very remarkable proof of the fact. In Paris, where the abundance of the waste food of man is so great that the sparrows need hardly seek any other food, a pair of these birds having built their nest on a terrace in the Rue Vivienne, the wing-coverts of May-beetles which had been rejected from the nest were collected, and found to number fourteen hundred, showing that at least seven hundred of these destructive insects had been consumed by one family in raising a single brood.

Thus it appears that the concurrent testimony of English naturalists, as well as of French savans who have carefully examined the subject, is conclusive in favor of the sparrows, demonstrating by indisputable evidence that the benefits they confer far more than compensate for the harm they may do.

That the sparrow is very fond of the ripening grain, and that, in the vicinity of large towns, it is occasionally destructive of that, as well as of seeds and small fruit, cannot be denied. But its depredations are limited both as to time and place, and are neither so extensive nor so wide-spread as many suppose. Sparrows chiefly frequent cities and large towns, and are comparatively rare in rural districts where grain is principally raised, and where the mischief they may do can bear no proportion to that which they prevent. Of this the best evidence we could seek is found in the simple fact already cited, that in France, as well as in other countries, after full investigations into its merits and its alleged demerits, the sparrow is no longer persecuted and sought out for destruction as a worthless marauder, but is protected by stringent laws as a public benefactor.

In this country the sparrow has been so recently introduced that it may seem premature to speak with positive certainty as to what its future here may develop of good or ill. But any one who knows the condition to which the trees in the public squares and parks of New York and more southern cities were reduced each successive summer by the measure-worms, must admit that the sparrows brought into our commercial emporium by a few public-spirited gentlemen have already done wonders. Only a few years since, all the trees in these parks, except the ailantus, became early in summer an unsightly collection of desolated branches, made yet more disgusting by the repulsive-looking worms that dangled from them, and caught upon the clothes of the incautious. Children could not sport with comfort under the trees, and the passer - by avoided them. Many cut down the shade-trees near their dwellings as the only means of escaping from these pests. The evil seemed not only incurable, but to be On the increase in all our maritime cities, from Boston to Washington. The introduction of the house-sparrow has already completely arrested this plague in New York and the neighboring cities of Brooklyn, Jersey City, Elizabeth, and Newark. Never was any mission more promptly or more thoroughly fulfilled. The sparrows at once encountered the enemy, and in two seasons they have completely exterminated them. In the summer of 1866 the more central parks of New York were swept completely clean of these worms. The last season witnessed their entire disappearance from that place, as well as from the surrounding cities. An accomplished ornithologist, and an enthusiastic friend of the sparrow, George N. Lawrence, Esq., informs us that, so far as he could ascertain, not a single tree in all New York lost its foliage, during the last season, through the measure - worms. The sparrows were promptly on hand everywhere, the worms were eaten, and the trees saved from pillage.

That the sparrow will, in like manner, attack and destroy the common canker-worm and the caterpillars of our gardens, when it comes in contact with them, there can be no reasonable doubt. If it will also war upon the curculio, which makes the raising of plums so nearly impossible, the measure of its usefulness will indeed be full.

What harm sparrows may do to our wheat-fields, should they become abundant, can now only be conjectured. That they will ever be seriously injurious, or an unmixed evil, we do not apprehend. One thing is at least certain, that, should the painful necessity ever arise, their numbers may at any time be lessened, both with ease and certainty, by the use of strychnine.

To our winter scenery the sparrows add not a little interest. They are lively and entertaining birds. Without having any very positive song, their notes are pleasant and cheerful. They are very hardy, and do not appear in the least to heed our severest weather. In the last December, on a cold and bitter day, following a severe snow-storm, while the snow was still blowing in blinding showers, and the thermometer hardly ranged above zero, — when no one could keep abroad without great personal discomfort, — the writer found, in the church-green on the corner of Fourteenth Street, New York, a merry flock of these birds. They had collected together under a snow-covered Norway spruce, and seemed to be having the jolliest time possible, utterly unmindful of the biting wind that was howling around them. Half frozen himself, their admirer could not resist the temptation to stop a few moments and enjoy the scene ; and as he at last turned away he thought within himself, that, even if the worst anticipations of his scientific friend should be realized in regard to the destructiveness of the sparrows, yet, for the sake of their bright and cheerful companionship in the dreary desolation of our winter, he would still most cheerfully pay his proportion of loss in an extra price for his flour, if need be.

In New York the sparrows have enthusiastic and ardent friends, who have provided them with commodious and attractive winter dwellings, with bright thatched roofs and projecting eaves. In some of the parks they are regularly fed. Although very tame, they are wary in regard to any real danger, and are on their guard against cats. Before their present homes were prepared for them, they roosted in the ivy, and built spherical nests among the leaves. Now they build open nests in their new homes, which they occupy throughout the year. They are very frolicsome and entertaining, especially after having been fed, and are a great source of amusement to the children, a favorite sport with whom is to throw up a feather in the air, in order to see the sparrows pursue it, and strive together which shall catch it and carry it off to his nest.

In a word, the more we have studied the history and the evidences, touching the European sparrow, the better satisfied have we been that a wise and beneficial movement has been made in their introduction into the country ; and we sincerely hope in time to find them, completely naturalized and contentedly domiciled among us.

We believe the first, place to make the experiment of introducing the sparrow was Portland ; where three pairs were set at liberty, in the summer of 1852, in a garden in the heart of the city. That they have increased and multiplied to a very considerable extent is satisfactory evidence that they are capable of enduring our rigorous climate. The committee on public squares of the city government of Boston have just made arrangements to introduce them into the Public Garden and the Common. Other cities have joined in the same movement, and we cannot doubt that the house-sparrow will erelong become one of our most common and familiar favorites.