The Sparrow Wars: America’s first “invasive species”
The public’s mania about “invasive species” often seems new to us. It’s not. In Peter Coates’ provocative book, American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species, we learn about one of the first episodes of public concern about an introduced species in American history, known as the “sparrow wars.”
Like many introductions of non-native species of plants and animals, the English sparrow (AKA house sparrow) was introduced to perform a practical function. Elm trees on the East Coast were being defoliated by a voracious native caterpillar. In 1852, The English sparrow was brought to America to rescue the trees from the caterpillars. The sparrows thrived and were soon reviled by ornithologists who considered them alien invaders.
The debate between ornithologists and those with a more cosmopolitan view of nature is reported at length by Coates. Long story short, the debate is reminiscent of what we hear today from nativists:
- They feared that the English sparrow would compete with native species for food and habitat and that native species would lose this competition.
- They considered native birds superior to the English sparrow which was considered dirty and a promiscuous breeder.
- The English sparrows were city dwellers and were considered the bird equivalent of ghettoized immigrants.
- The English sparrows were criticized for not eating enough of the caterpillars they were imported to eat. They weren’t doing the job they were hired to do!
This debate raged on amongst birders for decades according to the historical record reported by Coates. However, we no longer hear birders complain about the English sparrow, although we hear them complain about many other birds.
Update: This post requires an update. The New York Times published an op-ed in which a woman describes in horrific detail the monomaniacal attempts of her mother to exterminate all house sparrows in their neighborhood based on her belief that their eradication would benefit blue birds. It is a blood-curdling story that contradicts my naïve belief that after nearly 200 years, the house sparrow has been accepted in America.
Modern equivalents of the “sparrow wars”
Birders in San Francisco are currently complaining about the cherry-headed conures, more commonly known as the parrots of Telegraph Hill. They believe the parrots are depriving native birds of food and nesting places. They object to their presence in a place where they “don’t belong.”
We were introduced to this mindset by an ominous encounter with a birder in Florida who is typical of the nativist viewpoint of the avian world. The sound of gunfire drew us to a man with a shot gun on the lawn of our motel. Starlings were falling around him, where he quickly finished them off with a vigorous stomp of his booted foot. We were unfamiliar with the hatred of non-native species at that time and asked him why he was killing the birds. He seemed stunned to be questioned. He explained, as though speaking to retarded children, that the starlings were “trash birds” that must be killed. Following a basic rule of survival, we walked away from a person wielding a gun.
Why was the English sparrow redeemed?
Returning to the English sparrow, why are they no longer the target of hostility from birders? We speculate that one reason may be that they have been here for a long time, nearly 200 years. Just as human immigrants are often the target of prejudice and discrimination when they first arrive, they eventually become a routine part of our world. We rarely think of the Irish or other Europeans as immigrants in America.
Another reason is that the population of English sparrows is actually declining: “Since 1966 its North American population has declined by 2.5 percent annually.” (1) However, there is still an estimated population of 150 million in North America.
Ironically, the population of English sparrows is declining significantly in Britain, its ancestral home, where only 13 million are estimated to remain. In 2000 the British press was full of stories about the sudden decline of their iconic bird, “Responding to the strong sense that an essential part of the nation’s natural heritage…was disappearing…”
The lessons of the sparrow wars
These are familiar themes to the readers of the Million Trees blog:
- Some people fear newcomers to their world, whether those newcomers are people, animals or plants and that fear can result in destructive hatred.
- Newcomers usually fit in eventually. What is initially perceived as a threatening “invasion” rarely turns out to be a problem in the long run.
- Because nature is dynamic, the new home of an introduced species sometimes becomes the only home of that species. The movement of species is another way to ensure their survival. In fact, there is a new movement amongst citizen “scientists” to move rare species which are threatened by changed climate conditions into new locations. This is called “assisted migration.” (2)
(1) Peter Coates, American Perceptions of Immigrants and Invasive Species, UC Press, 2007. All quotes are from this book.
(2) Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden, Bloomsbury, 2011.