Meet the Little Brown Bird That Holds a Mirror Up to Humanity
Audubon > News Read More
Readers who cracked open an 1897 issue of a popular birding magazine called The Osprey found something shocking. Alongside articles about “The Taking of a California Condor’s Egg” and a hunter’s notes on “the table qualities of the Sage Grouse” was a blistering takedown of renowned ornithologist Thomas Brewer by his colleague, Elliott Coues:
“Everybody knows that Dr. Brewer made a fool of himself . . . the fact that he then died does not alter the other fact of what he did when he was alive . . . The harm he did is incalculable, and his name deserves to be stigmatized . . . Dying makes a great difference to the person chiefly concerned, but has no retroactive effect upon the events of his life, and only sentimentalists allow it to influence their estimate of personal character.”
Brewer had been dead for 17 years. What was Coues still mad about? The quarrel started back in the 1870s, when these men clashed over a little brown bird that had been imported from Europe: the House Sparrow. Broadly speaking, Brewer thought it was a welcome arrival that ate harmful pests, and Coues fretted that it devoured crops and killed native birds. The years-long battle, which was fought in the press and became known as the Sparrow War, left Coues so bitter that he couldn’t drop the topic almost two decades after his rival’s death.
The history of the House Sparrow is rife with this sort of human drama. This palm-size, earth-tone avian permanently tied its fate to our species during prehistoric times. In the ensuing millennia, the bird has navigated endless cultural shifts. People have hunted it, coddled it, written odes to it, and declared war on it. Whether we love or hate the House Sparrow, it holds up a mirror to humanity, revealing important truths about the way we relate to nature and to each other.
Human, Meet Sparrow
The relationship between human and House Sparrow began about 11,000 years ago. People living in the Fertile Crescent began to farm and build lasting settlements. In doing so, they created a new habitat and food source, one that the House Sparrow quickly exploited. It changed its body in profound ways so that it could thrive alongside its human hosts: It evolved a bigger bill to crack open agricultural grains and the ability to digest the starchy crops that people crave.
Not all House Sparrows settled alongside people. The bactrianus subspecies kept its distance. It does so to this day, ranging from parts of the Middle East to northwestern China. Skittish and migratory, it forages for wild grass seeds instead of cultivated crops. Meanwhile, the human-adapted House Sparrow was on its way to global domination.
Whenever humans move from place to place, we bring elements of our home ecosystem with us. So, when Middle Eastern farmers expanded into Europe, the sparrow tagged along. It was no longer native to one region, but, as ecologist Robb Dunn has written, “native to humanity”—or at least a slice of it.
How did the farmers feel about their avian companion? Emotions were mixed. The sparrow devoured harmful insects, especially during the nesting season when its growing chicks needed protein. But it also ate part of the harvest. By the 1700s in Europe, as settlements expanded and people shot sparrow-hungry birds of prey, the House Sparrow’s numbers reached unprecedented heights. To protect crops from the abundant birds, authorities took drastic measures. In Germany, for instance, they instituted a grim tax, demanding that farmers collect a certain number of sparrow heads per year. Officials counted the gruesome tokens, then burned them so nobody would present the same heads twice.
Across the Atlantic
Meanwhile, over in North America, homesick colonists were pining for sparrows. Surrounded by unfamiliar wildlife, they missed the sights and sounds of home. So, when they encountered small, brownish native birds, they named them Song Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, and so on. Never mind that these birds, collectively known today as New World Sparrows, were only distantly related to the House Sparrow from back home—or that Indigenous peoples had their own names for the creatures around them.
And then came the caterpillars.
In 1841, a native caterpillar species called the elm spanworm was experiencing one of its occasional boom years. The inchworm hung from trees, chewed on leaves, and ruined the “purest pleasure” of summer in New York, according to the Brooklyn Evening Star. “[I]t is painful to see the ladies . . . quitting the cover of the trees and seeking the hottest blaze of the noon-tide sun, to escape these worms,” the newspaper lamented. Gentlemen also suffered. In 1859 the New York Times reported that, despite cool weather unfavorable to the caterpillars, “still all men who wear a mustache have even this year shuddered to find occasionally that the brown wretches were dangling from their cherished ornaments.” Other native caterpillar species were causing problems, too, defoliating urban forests and harming fruit trees.
What could be done? These days, researchers know that caterpillar outbreaks are complex. It’s tricky to determine the exact mix of factors that cause them and how long they’ll last. But back in the 1840s, a few scholarly men thought they had a solution—one steeped in nostalgia. “It was suggested at a meeting of intelligent men,” reported the Evening Star, “that an importation of English Sparrows would do much in keeping the trees free from worms.” The English Sparrow, a.k.a. the House Sparrow, thrived in cities and was known to scarf down insects. Perhaps it could tackle these spanworms as well as pests plaguing farmers’ fields. In 1850, Nicholas Pike, the head of a local scientific and cultural organization, directed an effort to import 16 House Sparrows from England. Further introductions took place to control caterpillars across the US and worldwide. The species proliferated, often under the watchful eyes of officials. In Chicago, a police officer organized locals to put up 170 sparrow houses, and even installed perches at a fountain so that the birds could bathe in comfort.
The Sparrow War
Everything went well—at first. New Yorkers found fewer caterpillars in their mustaches. The sparrow multiplied and spread quickly; so quickly, in fact, that some wondered if the experiment was too successful. Had naturalists traded the plague of harmful caterpillars for a plague of crop-hungry sparrows? At an 1867 meeting of the Boston Society of Natural History, a naturalist named Charles Pickering delivered an anti-sparrow tirade. He quoted authors who declared the birds “impudent” and “evil,” and warned that they needed to be slaughtered before they ate the United States out of house and home.
Brewer, that aforementioned ornithologist who would be posthumously chewed out, fired back. He argued that the “lively and entertaining” sparrow was doing a great job eating caterpillars and would prove to be a worthwhile addition to the North American fauna. The debate calmed down—but only for a few years. In 1874 Coues reported that the “overrated” House Sparrow was driving away native species, and warned that one day Americans would have to “take measures to get rid of the birds.” Again, Brewer responded, arguing and that Coues was “prejudiced against the sparrow from the beginning.” The rivals kept quarreling, and other naturalists and laypeople jumped into the fray. The ensuing decade-long drama played out in the popular press and in scientific journals, where it became known as the Sparrow War—but it wasn’t just about a bird.
At the time, immigration was picking up, and hundreds of thousands of people were entering North America each year. Many of these newcomers faced a flood of prejudice, including those from Ireland and China and later from eastern and southern Europe. When naturalists took to the press to discuss the House Sparrow’s merits, many of them made horrific comparisons to the new human arrivals. Haters labeled both immigrants and the House Sparrow “noisy,” “promiscuous,” “violent,” and “depraved.” Frank Bolles, a nature writer and secretary of Harvard University, called the bird “the feathered embodiment of those instincts and passions which belong to the lowest class of foreign immigrants.”
Poets joined the battle, too. In 1881, Forest and Stream magazine reprinted an awkward pro-sparrow verse by William Cullen Bryant that proclaimed “the Old-World Sparrow is welcome here.” Below it, they shared a new poem by Fred Mather that name-dropped Coues. “America’s freedom has been much abused,” Mather retorted. “But our long-suffering people some morning will see / Communists and sparrows thrown into the sea.”
Many of the claims made during the Sparrow War were anecdotal, based on opinion, or hard to verify. The House Sparrow, for its part, didn’t read the newspapers. It did what it had evolved to do: It lived alongside people. As always, its numbers fluctuated as culture shifted. By the 1920s, for instance, cars replaced horses on city streets, and the sparrow declined; it could no longer nibble on abundant stores of horse feed or pluck tasty grains from dung. But it was capable of adapting to our vagaries in remarkable ways. Over in Yorkshire in the mid 1970s, a pair of birds followed humans into a coal mine and nested 2,100 feet underground.
Widespread but Waning
Today the House Sparrow nests on every continent but Antarctica. The bird numbers perhaps a billion. And the human-sparrow relationship is, unsurprisingly, still complicated. While the species can be a nuisance for farmers, fears about its agricultural impact didn’t quite bear out. It is, however, a troublesome carrier of pathogens such as West Nile Virus and Salmonella. And then there’s the battle over nest boxes. People who install a box for the Eastern Bluebird may watch in horror as a sparrow displaces or even kills the native species. Seeing this behavior firsthand can reshape how people view the House Sparrow. Researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have found that, when someone witnesses an attack, they’re more likely to try and control their local sparrow population. But it’s not clear whether these incidents are causing overall declines in native species. Broadly speaking, fluctuations in sparrow numbers don’t seem to drive shifts in bluebird populations. This issue is difficult to study, though, and more research is needed.
At the moment, sparrows are, yet again, on a downswing. Cornell Lab’s Project FeederWatch found that, between 1995 and 2016, the proportion of sites reporting House Sparrows sunk by 7.5 percent, and the average flock size shrunk by 22 percent. Concerned conservationists in Europe and Asia see declines there, too, perhaps because of changing agricultural practices, insect die offs, pollution, and disease. “When sparrows are rare,” Dunn writes, “we tend to like them, and when they are common, we tend to hate them. Our fondness is fickle and predictable and says more about us than them.”
We don’t have to love the House Sparrow. We don’t have to enjoy its repetitive chirps or suppress heartbreak when it kills a bluebird. But we can’t ignore it. For those of us in urban areas, it’s an important connection to the natural world. In 1970, when the New York State Assembly voted to make the Eastern Bluebird the official state bird, a Democrat from the Bronx dissented: “Those of us who are city dwellers don’t know the bluebird—we know the sparrow.”
After thousands of years of human-sparrow interactions, the House Sparrow can help us know ourselves, too. We owe it to ourselves to peer into that feathered mirror.