In Defense of the Non-Native:

Reflections on the Case of the English Sparrow

published in Vector, Fall 2010


Gina Siepel

In 1839, Henry David Thoreau undertook a weeklong journey in a rowboat, and recorded his observations and musings in his book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. In 1851, English sparrows (Passer Domesticus) were introduced to North America in Brooklyn, New York, in Greenwood Cemetery. In A Week, Thoreau wrote:

“Some Spring the white man came, built him a house, and made a clearing here, letting in the sun, dried up a farm, piled up the old gray stones in fences, cut down the pines around his dwelling, planted orchard seeds brought from the old country, and persuaded the civil apple tree to blossom next to the wild pine and the juniper, shedding its perfume in the wilderness…”

English sparrows (a.k.a. House Sparrows), commonplace in Europe, were thought to be insectivorous and it was hoped that they would bring crop infestations in the Eastern U.S. (brought about by rapid deforestation) under control. In addition, there was a cultural movement to ennoble the citizens of North America by introducing to the continent all songbirds mentioned in the plays of William Shakespeare.

 “…He culled the graceful elm from out of the woods and from the river-side, and so refined and smoothed his village plot. And thus he plants a town. He rudely bridged a stream, and drove his team afield into the river meadows, cut the wild grass, and laid bare the homes of beaver, otter, muskrat, and with the whetting of his scythe scared off the deer and bear.”

The English sparrow, by Darwinian standards, has been an extraordinary success. These birds are clever, enterprising, and adaptable, and do very well in urbanized and suburbanized areas, and thus they spread rapidly around the continental U.S. During the late nineteenth century, introductions of the birds became a fad. People removed predators from habitats and built nest boxes before releasing new birds, to give them a better chance for survival. American cities of that time offered abundant seeds and food, no natural predators, and the English sparrow population exploded.

“….He set up a mill, and fields of English grain sprang in the virgin soil. And with his grain he scattered the seeds of the dandelion and the wild trefoil over the meadows, mingling his English flowers with the wild native ones. The bristling burdock, the sweet scented catnip, and the humble yarrow, planted themselves along his woodland road, they too seeking “freedom to worship God” in their way.”

English sparrows are “secondary cavity nesters.” This means that they need holes in which to build their nests and raise their young, but they are incapable of making the holes themselves. There are ingenious homesteaders. I recently was walking through the parking lot of a Staples office supply store, and looked up when I heard the chatter of an English Sparrow. I saw him guarding his nest in the perfect cavity: the little domed space in the center of the lower case “e” in the word “Staples”.

There are never quite enough cavities to go around, and thus, competition for nest sites becomes quite intense between bird species. Eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, and purple martins are among the native species frequently displaced by the English sparrow. Some methods used by English sparrows to dominate nest cavities:

-Harrassment and Intimidation. English sparrows will mob, harass, and intimidate native birds until they move to another site.

-Nest Removal. English sparrows will systematically remove the nesting materials of native birds from a cavity, delaying reproduction by their competitors.

-Egg Destruction. English sparrows will enter the nests of competitors and smash their eggs or throw them on the ground, thereby preventing native birds from reproducing.

-Harrassment of Parents at Feeding Time. English sparrows will attack parents relentlessly when they are bringing food back to the nest for their young, and will do this consistently enough that the nestlings are weakened by starvation and eventually die.

-Removal of Nestlings. English sparrows will throw nestlings to the ground, where they will die from the impact, exposure, or predation.

- Death by Pecking. English Sparrows are slightly larger than most of the native species they displace, and have stronger beaks. They will peck entire families of bluebirds or tree swallows to death, usually by punching holes through the skull, and they will build their own nests on top of the bodies.

“….The white man’s mullein soon reigned in Indian corn-fields, and sweet scented English grasses clothed the new soil. Where, then, could the red man set his foot? The honey bee hummed through the Massachusetts woods, and sipped the wild flowers round the Indian’s wigwam, it stung the red child’s hand, forerunner of that industrious tribe that was to come and pluck the wild flower of his race up by the root.”  (Thoreau, A Week, p. 30, 31)

By the late nineteenth century, public opinion turned against the English sparrows. An 1883 article in The Messenger (Indiana, PA, 06/27/83) said “The little sparrow has been declared an outlaw by legislative enactment and they can be killed at any time. They were imported into this country from Europe some years ago as a destroyer of insects, but it has been found they are not insectivorous. Besides they drive away all our native song birds and give no equivalent. Let them all be killed.” Bounty programs were established around the country and children killed sparrows and turned them in to obtain money for candy.

{Sparrows are mentioned twelve times in the plays of William Shakespeare. Swans are mentioned seventeen times. Nightingales are mentioned thirty times; ravens are mentioned thirty-one. Crows are mentioned thirty eight times; eagles forty; geese forty four, and doves top the list at sixty.}

 Last Spring I participated in a citizen science project to monitor nest boxes through the Massachusetts Audubon Society. The wildlife sanctuary where the project was conducted is in the heart of gentleman’s farm country west of Boston, a couple miles from Walden Pond, in woods Thoreau wandered a hundred and fifty years ago. The purpose of the nesting project was to help foster and document populations of native secondary cavity nesters, like the Eastern Bluebird and the Tree Swallow. During the introductory training session, the birder in charge of the project oriented us to the basics of bird and nest recognition. First we learned the songs, calls, and nesting habits of eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, chickadees, and other native species. English sparrows were said to “chirp” and “chatter,” and they were described as noisy, they built messy nests using garbage, had too many babies, flocked in unseemly large groups, and were aggressive towards more mannerly native birds. We were told that we must do “whatever it takes” to stop them.

In recent decades, bluebird nesting projects like this one have dramatically reversed the decline of this beautiful native songbird, and have also aided tree swallows and other species. Unfortunately, these projects almost always face the problem of competition from English sparrows. Notably, English sparrows are not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and it is not illegal to harm them.

Some methods used by bluebird lovers to control English sparrow populations:

-       Barring Entrance. In this method, a birder makes the entrance to the nest box small enough that it’s more difficult for English sparrows to enter, yet still comfortable for the slightly smaller native birds. This is called “passive control.”

-       Egg Swapping. A birder fabricates eggs of air-dried clay, and paints them to look identical to the eggs of the English sparrow. The clay eggs are then swapped with the real eggs when the parents are away from the nest. The real eggs are destroyed.

-       Neck Wringing. In this method, birders reach into nest boxes, pick up English sparrows from their nests, and twist their necks until they die.

-       Suffocating. A birder presses in upon the sparrow’s lungs until breathing ceases.

-       Drowning. A birder places the sparrow in a burlap bag and submerges it until the bird drowns.

-       Throwing. A birder throws the sparrow to the ground with enough force to kill it instantly.

-       Carbon Monoxide Poisoning. Some birders prefer to back a car up to the sparrow’s nest box, run a hose directly from the car’s exhaust through the nest box door, and run the engine for a few minutes until the sparrows are dead. Others place live sparrows in a plastic bag and enclose the bag over their muffler while the engine is running.

-       Many birders recommend storing the dead bodies of the English sparrows in the freezer and donating them to a local raptor rehabilitation center, to be fed to rehabilitating native birds of prey.

Despite these grisly efforts by human bird lovers to control their population growth, English Sparrows are enjoying extraordinary success in North America. There are currently an estimated 150 million English sparrows in the United States.

We live in an altered, hybridized environment, during a period of rapid changes, most of which were exacted by our own species, either directly or indirectly. Perhaps this is actually part of nature, not above or beside it. The tides of favor have turned against species once tenderly, if misguidedly, cultivated. These efforts arise out of a well-meaning desire to balance local ecosystems and aid important populations, but they are rife with contradictions and ironies. Two hundred years ago there were no English sparrows in North America. Now they are singled out for persecution based simply on their inherited traits, their inescapable self-ness, their sparrowness. It’s true that the sparrows have raised hell in North America. But who are we to judge?