Friday, December 01, 2017

Sparrows, Horses, and Supply-side Economics

Former Congressman John Dingell on the GOP tax bill now in Congress.

Everything is connected to everything, which is a nice way of saying that when John Dingell's tweet about the current tax bill came across my iPhone, I smiled and remembered the "sparrow wars" of the late 19th Century.

The House Sparrow, (or "English Sparrow" as it is sometimes called) was first introduced to the U.S. in the 1850s and promoted to city officials across the East and Midwest as an effective form of pollution control -- sparrows were supposed to clean up the horse droppings littering America's streets.

Mayors, city councils, and park officials heralded the release of sparrow colonies in much the same way they heralded the arrival of gas lights and indoor plumbing -- as a sign of America's coming of age. The House Sparrow was, we were told, a kind of "equine catalytic converter" designed to make our increasingly crowded cities a cleaner place to live.

Within 20 years after its introduction, however, the booming population of House Sparrows in the U.S. was perceived to be having a negative impact on some native song bird populations, especially eastern bluebirds, tufted titmice, and various chickadees.

The friction between the immigrant and native birds was largely due to the aggressive nature of the House Sparrow which simply out-competed some native birds for housing and (to a lesser extent) food.

The rise of the House Sparrow created one of the more interesting environmental battles of the late 19th and early 20th Century. Dr. Thomas Mayo Brewer -- a great friend of John James Audubon and a co-author of the first modern catalog of American birds -- thought the House Sparrow was a wonderful and determined little bird and that, in time, it would prove to be one of America's favorites.

English Sparrow or House Sparrow, male and female

Opposing Dr. Brewer's love of the House Sparrow was Dr. Elliott Coues, whose "Key to North American Birds" remains one the most important works of American ornithology. Dr. Coues advocated an open war on House Sparrows, saying they were a peril to native birds. Dr. Coues described the House Sparrow as "sturdy little foreign vulgarians," and "animated manure machines ... without a redeeming quality."

This fray between naturalists was, believe it or not, a minor cause celebre, and was enjoined by the likes of Harriet Beecher Stowe (on the side of Brewer) and the very young Theodore Roosevelt (on the side of Coues).

In 1883, the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU), a newly formed organization made up of the most eminent men in the field of birding, resolved at their first meeting to decide "the eligibility or ineligibility of the European House Sparrow in America," i.e., should the sparrow be granted the right to be called a naturalized American bird?

In the end, the AOU concluded that the House Sparrow could not be admitted as an American species.

Despite this ruling, the House Sparrow eventually made its way into the AOU's "Check List of North American Birds," as an "introduced" species. By 1931 this distinction had evaporated, and the House Sparrow was added to the AOU check list without any quibbling or further notation.

The House Sparrow had, for all intents and purposes, been assimilated and was now a "North American Bird" (though, it should be said, it remains one of the few birds that can be trapped and exterminated without a license).

At about the same time that the American Ornithologists' Union was removing the asterisk next to the House Sparrow's name, House Sparrow populations began to decline as automobiles replaced horses in America's streets. Changes in farming practices further reduced the amount of grain spillage and horse manure available for avian gleaning.


Jennifer said...

Great Dingell quote.
I'm amazed to hear the 'feathered rat' has supporters in the bird watching community. Everyone in Audubon chapter I hung out with in my teens (long long ago) hated them...IMO for good reasons.

Jennifer said...

Great quote from Dingell.
Amazing. I thought all birders hated 'feathered rats' (the third name for this species).