English Sparrows Are Where?


Mother Nature placed the little brown English Sparrow in England probably centuries ago. Maybe, even more. However, in 1851, in spite of the $1,600 cost, eight of them were released in the United States. Why? To help the U.S. with their bug problems, especially the canker worms in some of the New York parks. 

Unfortunately, this first transfer failed. But that did not discourage the men behind the plot. The next venture later that year saw twenty-five pairs being brought over. It seems some additional thought might have refined what they requested from England to ensure success. In any case, some time even later, another hundred were brought over.

Within the next three years, Portland, Maine thought it a good idea as well. By 1859 New Haven, Rhode Island and Nova Scotia had followed suit.

During the following two decades, scattered locales across the U.S. and Canada (South Carolina, Texas, California, Canada, Utah and Iowa) added to the count of English sparrows on this side of the Atlantic. Because the birds were thriving so well, some were even purchased from inside the U.S. and relocated.

However, sparrows were not the only species of birds imported. Between 1870 and 74, the Cincinnati Acclimatization Society released 4,000 European songbirds, more sparrows and the startling starlings, all for the same reason. Insect control. Out of all those, only the house sparrows and the starlings thrived in their new home. In fact, the trend was so popular, breeders and caring people helped by setting up breeding boxes and minimizing their predators. As a result, these “sparrow helpers” introduced them to many other states. Even Hawaii imported nine birds from New Zealand. What a great little simple bird. So neutrally colored in its various shades of brown, most people hardly noticed their presence. That was true until the truth became known. Not until they began thriving on the grain crops was it realized they didn’t actually eat bugs! As a result, by 1877, a mere 26 years since the first sparrow set foot on American soil, the Sparrow War began; literally pitting the American ornithologists and bird lovers against the farmers and economists. One good argument was that an estimated seventeen percent of the bird’s grain diet consisted of weed seeds, so the situation wasn’t all bad unless you might wonder how they came up with that information. Against that was the fact that the increasing numbers of sparrows displaced several voracious insect eaters like bluebirds and purple martins. Mother Nature’s delicate balance was being disrupted.

But the spread was not over. Probably through stowing aboard boats when other animals or grain were transported, they got to Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, Brazil and Venezuela. For a bird that doesn’t fly very great distances, they certainly got around—thanks to man himself!
 However, today, in 2012, is Mother Nature beginning to correct things or has man inadvertently done something all by himself? It is noted that since the 1970’s the sparrow population has declined both on the east coast of the U.S. and in their original home. In England their population is estimated to have shrunk by sixty percent! Of course it is generally accepted that agricultural practices, pollution, and loss of natural habitat are high on the list of possible causes. However, just a few years ago the British discovered the sparrows and certain breeds of finches were dying because of a parasite, while in America it is believed that loss of habitat is the primary reason for a thirty percent decline. The fact that sparrows don’t migrate is suspected to be an overall exacerbation of their current problem. 

The birds are not the only folly man had created here in the U.S.  Dating clear back to 1935, our own Department of Agriculture encouraged southern farmers to plant kudzu (a perennial vine) to help reduce soil erosion. However, kudzu ended up choking out native plants and overtaking farmer’s crops. 

On the other hand, such introduced products like other genetic varieties of food crops and animals that have been integrated have helped to feed our ever-increasing population. The debates about Genetically Modified foods (GMOs) rages today, but not because of what makes the idea sound great. The argument, in spite of the crop’s ever increasing problems, is primarily that the population isn’t given a choice about what they consume because the FDA refuses to require GMOs to be labeled as such. But with Europe, India, and many other countries already banning GMO’s as health risks to both man and the very insects and birds that pollinate the flowers, perhaps America and others should heed their warning. 

Man has always wanted to be the master, but it looks like he’s more often his own worst enemy. Sure, we have wonderful gadgets, but it seems we don’t think of the long-term consequences and the cost of that consequence. Remember the twenty-six years it took to detect the impact of the little innocuous sparrow? 

Mother Nature has a delicate balance. Over the lifetime of the planet, the balance has kept the food chain basically stable, but once disrupted it often cannot be changed back. Take the migration of the Zebra Mussel, the Goby and other non-native species such as sea lampreys that are playing havoc in the Great Lakes to this day. Though they may have been introduced by contaminated ballast water from ships, it is still a frightening example of allowing ballast water to be dumped without being filtered. In any case, these non-native interlopers are breaking the food chains so badly that the “good guys” like lake trout can no longer survive. 

There are many examples of man not considering the future environmental damage. The Pike, that make good eating, were intended to improve fishing in a Serbian Lake have now migrated into the Croatian Delta and are decimating the native species. Good intentions. Except for the lake, it turned into a bad outcome for everywhere else. 

Perhaps the only warning that should be taken from all this, is the importance of the long-term effects and maybe it’s best to try and insure Mother Nature balance’s are kept in place, because of the twenty or so years it may take to realize a disaster. Effects that were never conceived. Much like the use of Thalidomide to prevent miscarriages and the current major concern about cell phone system radiation on both man and migrating animals. There seems little doubt now that sonar disrupts aquatic mammals such as dolphins and whales. But will there be more cancer for cell phone users twenty years from now? Initial indications suggest the answer is yes. And the cost of this convenience to the health-care industry may prove to be budget breaking. 

Does this mean the only way to make this earth healthy and safe again is to return to the horse and buggy days? Maybe so. But who can believe that would really happen. However, as long as the experts continue to make poor decisions, we will have to deal with the negative consequences unless Mother Nature retaliates.  What happens then will still depend on the decisions of man himself. Our lives are in our own hands. Too bad we can’t all agree on how to make good long-term decisions. 

Hmmm. Wonder if England will have to buy some sparrows from us one day. That is, if we have any more left.