Estimated reading time: 8 minute(s)

In recent weeks, I have covered birds from the January 1897 issue of Birds: A Monthly Serial, or Birds: Illustrated By Color Photography. Today, I will cover a bird from a different source – the February 3, 1880 edition of Harper’s Young People. Moreover, today’s bird will be more familiar to most of our audience than the Resplendent Trogon or Cock-of-the-Rock. In fact, today’s bird is familiar to The New Leaf Journal as well. Not the emu, but rather the common sparrow, herein referred to as the “house-sparrow.”

Illustration of a man feeding  sparrows in New York in front of onlookers in the February 3 1880 issue of Harper's Young People.
Illustration of a man feeding the sparrows in New York from the issue of Harper’s Young People

The sparrow was already common in the Northern United States in 1880. For that reason, Harper’s wrote the article to teach young readers about a bird that many were quite familiar with. Below, I will work through the piece and offer some additional thoughts and link-backs to our own content.

You can follow see the original article in its entirety at Project Gutenberg.

When did the House-Sparrow Arrive in the United States?

Harper’s begins by stating that the English house-sparrow was common throughout the Northern United States and had been first brought to the United States “about twenty years ago.” Having seen sparrows around my entire life, I never thought about when they came here. Twenty years prior to the publication of Harper’s house-sparrow piece would have been about 1860. I performed some quick research to find out if it was correct in stating when house-sparrows arrived in the United States?

The website of the National Audubon Society weighs in on the subject: “Native to Eurasia and northern Africa, [the house sparrow] has succeeded in urban and farming areas all over the world – including North America, where it was first released at New York in 1851.” (Emphasis added.) The sources that Wikipedia cites to put the date of first arrival in New York City at 1852.

1851 and 1852 are close to 1860, so I will say that Harper’s was in the ballpark. There is one key difference between Harper’s 1880 account and Audubon’s contemporary account. According to Harper’s, “[i]t is said the first [house-sparrows] were liberated in Portland, Maine, where they immediately made themselves at home, and began nest-building and worm-catching as eagerly as when in their native air.” It was only after that initial liberation in Maine, according to Harper’s, that sparrows were brought to New York City.

Audubon is a bit more definitive about its account than Harper’s was. While I cannot resolve the issue myself, it goes without saying that wherever and whenever the first release was, the house-sparrow took to the Northeast United States quite well.

The House-Sparrow Arrives in New York and Other Cities for Pest Control

Harper’s explains something that should be no surprise to any resident of New York City – the house-sparrow made itself at home in the Big Apple. What is less obvious, however, is that the sparrows were apparently brought to New York City for a reason.

At about the time the sparrows arrived, New York, Brooklyn (recall Brooklyn was still its own City) and other cities around the country were suffering from an excess of measuring worms. Measuring words, explained the editors “infested the streets in armies, hung in horrible webs and festoons from the branches of shade trees, and ruined the beauty and comfort of the city during the pleasantest season of the whole year.” By July, the measuring worms had left the trees “stripped and bare” before reappeaing one month later as geometer moths. The moths would lay eggs, and the cycle would repeat the next spring.

Harper’s tells readers that an English gentleman suggested importing sparrows to deal with the inchworms and moths. Cities agreed, “and soon hundreds of these brown-coated little fellows were set loose in different cities.”

Did the House-Sparrow Fix the Measuring Worms

The editors of Harper’s notes, and as anyone who observes sparrows knows, that sparrows are none-too-picky about what they eat. Adult sparrows are “very willing to feed on bread-crumbs and seeds, and save itself the trouble of hunting for its dinner…” They are clever little birds. Did this cleverness spell doom for the English gentleman’s plan? It did not, we learn, for little sparrows have different diets than the adults.

[B]y a wise provision of nature the little [sparrows], until they are fully fledged, can eat only worms and small flies and bugs.” Thus, even if the adult sparrows look for the path of least resistance to fill their own stomachs, they can take no such shortcuts for their young ones. What’s more, “[a]s the sparrows have three or four broods during the warm weather, they always have little ones to feed at the very season when worms and other insects destructive to vegetation are the most plentiful.” Young sparrows need to eat quite a bit to grow, despite their small size. The editors reported that “[a]n English naturalist states that in watching a pair of sparrows feeding their little ones, he saw them bring food to the nest from thirty to forty times every day, and each time from two to six caterpillars were brought.

Thanks to the insatiable appetites of the baby sparrows, the English gentleman’s pest-reduction plan was a rousing success. Harper’s reported that within a few years of the introduction of sparrows to cities in the Northern United States, “not a worm was to be seen.”

The Rain of Worms Subsides

Harper’s described the change that the sparrows brought to New York, Brooklyn, and other cities in a vivid and slightly disturbing way that deserves its own section. As a result of the introduction of the sparrows to the environment, Harper’s wrote:

The trees now grow undisturbed in their leafy beauty all through the summer, and many children will scarcely remember the time when their mothers went about the streets where shade trees grew carrying open umbrellas in sunny days and starry evenings to protect themselves from the constantly dropping worms.

He or she who never knew that people in New York had to walk around with umbrellas to shield themselves from falling worms may be happiest of all.

The Sparrows Receive a Warm Welcome in New York

The sparrows were quickly welcomed in cities. Harper’s states that “[t]hey at once became public pets” upon their arrival. Residents set up houses on balconies and left crumbs for their breakfast (but fortunately, not breakfast for the little ones).

The sparrows captured the hearts of New Yorkers and other city-dwellers for reasons that will strike any sparrow observer today as familiar.

It is no wonder that every one is gratefully affectionate to the sparrow. They are very social little birds, and are entirely happy amid the noise and dirt and confusion of the crowded street. They are bold and saucy too, and will stand in the pathway pecking at some stray crust of bread until nearly run over, when they hop away, scolding furiously at being disturbed. They are fond of bathing, and after a rain may be seen in crowds fluttering and splashing in the pools of water in the street. The cold winter does not molest them. They continue as plump and jolly and independent as ever, and chirp and hop about as merrily on a snowy day as during summer.

I can attest to the point about sparrows handling the winter. They are quite loud and energetic whenever they manage to gather in a perennially virid tree or bush.

In one interesting anecdote, Harper’s explained that New York built pretty rustic houses for the sparrows in Central Park. Smaller parks also contained hundreds of especially built sparrow houses. Sadly for the pigeons and pheasants that were kept in cages, the sparrows would sneak their food and dart away before the poor larger birds could react. At least it is an even playing field these days.

Feeding the Sparrows

New York not only housed the sparrows, but also fed them. According to Harper’s, small parks in New York that provided sparrow housing also provided amenities. “Feed and water troughs are provided, and it is the duty of the park keeper to fill them every morning.” The sparrows were well aware of the arrangement, flocking together for feeding hour. The editors stated that “[t]he greedy little things eat all day.” At that time, we are told, school children would feed sparrows, sharing their own lunches with their feathered friends instead of chasing them. Furthermore, “even idle and ragged loungers on the park benches draw crusts of bread from their pockets, and throw the sparrows a portion of their own scanty dinner.”

The Industrious Sparrows

Although New York built many sparrow houses, sparrows who did not find a home had no trouble making their own. “If houses are not provided, the sparrow will build in any odd corner—a chink in the wall or in the nooks and eaves of buildings.” For example, “[a] pair of London sparrows once made their nest in the mouth of a bronze lion over Northumberland House, at Charing Cross. That is, while the sparrows were spoiled, they were quite able to hold their own when need be. They proved this well by their ability to hunt for tasty worms for their offspring.

A Sea Story of the Sparrow’s Attachment to Its Nest

Harper’s illustrated how attached sparrows are to their nests, whether the nests are fancy or makeshift, with a lovey story of two sparrows who followed their nest to sea. Below, you will find the story reprinted in its entirety.

They are very much attached to their nest, and after the little speckled eggs are laid will cling to it even under difficulties. The sailors of a coasting vessel once lying in a Scotch port frequently observed two sparrows flying about the topmast. One morning the vessel put to sea, when, to the astonishment of the sailors, the sparrows followed, evidently bent upon making the voyage. Crumbs being thrown on the deck, they soon became familiar, and came boldly to eat, hopping about as freely as if on shore. A nest was soon discovered built among the rigging. Fearing it might be demolished by a high wind, at the first landing the sailors took it carefully down, and finding that it contained four little ones, they carried it on shore and left it in the crevice of a ruined house. The parent birds followed, evidently well pleased with the change, and when the vessel sailed away they remained with their young family.

A job well-done by the parent sparrows and the caring sailors.

Weighing the Ups and Downs of Sparrows

Sparrows were not seen as being universally good. For example, Harper’s noted that there was a not-insignificant amount of literature about how sparrows can drive away other birds like robins and damage grain fields. However, the editors opined that the sparrow “more than balances these misdeeds by the thousands of caterpillars, mosquitoes, and other insects which it destroys, thus saving the life of countless trees and plants.” Did they say mosquitoes? Was I wrong when I said that the only way to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes was to find tastier company? We need more sparrows!

The editors concluded the article on a positive note: “The whole year around it is the same active, bustling, jolly creature, and our cities would be lonely and desolate without this little denizen of the street.”

Final Chirps

I found the sparrow article interesting – especially the information about how, when, and why sparrows were imported to the United States. Although they may be less pampered now than they were when they first arrived, the sparrows continue to handle city life well. While other small birds like lost parakeets may struggle with New York City’s weather, sparrows adapt well to many conditions.

Sadly, the article offered no clue as to the nature of the possible-albino sparrow that I saw in Brooklyn in 2018 and wrote about here. I suppose that it would have been surprising if it did. That mystery continues.

Early in 2020, fewer people were out and about in Brooklyn. With that, combined with many residents being put out of work, there was less discarded human food to go around. I noticed that pigeons were quite resourceful, grazing grassy expanses instead of waiting for bread. This sparrow content reminded me to publish an article about a particularly resourceful pigeon that I came across over the summer. When I publish that article, I will post an update at the bottom of this article.

Finally, this sparrow article convinced me to come up with some more sparrow content for The New Leaf Journal. It is not fair that the pigeons and falcons of New York City have stolen the limelight thus far. I will work on this important project in the months to come.