The House Sparrow/The House Sparrow: by a Friend of the Farmers

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THE HOUSE SPARROW.

By a Friend of the Farmers,

COLONEL C. RUSSELL.




The sparrow question has interested me from childhood; the first definite observation I can remember was that of opening half-grown nestling sparrows some fifty years back, and finding in their gizzards ripe wheat about June 20, when none could be got in the fields; the nearest place where it was likely to be found being a farmyard about half a mile distant. It struck me at once; so much for calculations of the numbers of insects destroyed by sparrows, based on counting the visits of sparrows to their nest, and assuming that they carried in nothing but insects. From that time or earlier I have observed the habits of sparrows; up to 1870 only loosely, and my impression then was that they lived mainly on corn, and though they took a few insects sometimes, that they no more lived on them than boys live on nuts and blackberries.

One most objectionable habit I have noticed from the first—that of turning the house-martins out of their nests as fast as they build them. A decrease in the numbers of the martins by this persecution has been going on steadily for the last fifty years, till they are, according to my estimate, not one-fiftieth as numerous as they have been within my memory. Every year the martins are finally banished by the sparrows from numbers of places where they have built, in ever decreasing numbers, for years. I could give any number of instances of this. Passing through villages where formerly there were hundreds of martins, one now sees none, or perhaps some three or four nests, all, or nearly so, occupied by sparrows. In districts where any martins are still left, they will keep on building a nest or two in favourite places every year, only to be turned out of them; and particularly within a radius of a few miles round my place, which supplies a large yearly surplus of them, they try to establish themselves on every new suitable building—but all in vain.[1] Of all the colonies of martins that I have been acquainted with anywhere, I do not know of one now remaining, and the only successful new one within my knowledge where the martins are not protected by killing the sparrows (an exception which goes to prove the rule), is at the ruins of Thorndon Hall near Brentwood, burnt out a few years since. This house is in the middle of a park; probably the sparrows do not care to live there because no corn is to be had near enough to please them.

The martins, which feed exclusively on insects, if left in possession of their nests, would, unlike many other birds, increase with the population of the country and number of houses. Besides the persecution by sparrows, there is no condition unfavourable to the martins except that when, with their natural confidence in man, too often misplaced, they make their nests close to windows or doors for protection, people commonly destroy them; thus completing the exterminating work of the sparrows. I have heard it said 'they must come there for mischief; they might build anywhere else.' Few seem to notice that, unless where sparrows dare not come, the martins cannot keep a nest. The only thing which saves these birds from total extermination in this country seems to be this—they sometimes manage to rear a late brood after the 'fell adversary to house-martins' (as White of Selborne rightly called the sparrow) has left off nesting and betaken himself to the wheat-fields. But in this way the martins are kept here too long, and sometimes, before their young can fly, are caught by sharp frost in October, and die. The last numerous colony that I knew of, within a few miles of my house, was thus cleared out a few years ago, while my martins, protected from sparrows, and always getting their young off in good time, took no harm.

About my premises the martins, formerly numerous, as elsewhere became fewer and fewer until in 1869 they had nearly disappeared, young ones flying, I think, from only two nests—one close to a window, the other to a door. Towards the end of May, 1870, several nests freshly built under the eaves of the pigeon-house, their favourite place, were all found to be in the possession of sparrows. The indignation with which I had seen this persecution all my life at last boiled over, and, resolving that the martins should have one safe place, I began to protect them by killing down the sparrows. It was a hard fight at first; the martins' nests had to be watched almost constantly, and, if I remember rightly, 150 sparrows were shot—mostly about these nests—in about a fortnight. War has been waged against them ever since. The first year or two we did not take the trouble to kill them in winter, but this did not answer; a great number lived about the place, many roosting in the martins' nests. When we began shooting the sparrows in spring they would all go away for a day or two, but kept coming back again, so that constant watchfulness for weeks was required to kill them down; the plan was therefore adopted of paying a penny for shooting each sparrow as soon as it shows itself all the year round. They are shot with very small charges of dust shot, mostly from inside doors and windows, or from loopholes made to command the places they generally come to; they dislike this practice, and do not come much—less and less every year. The plan has been most successful; the place is wonderfully free from sparrows—sometimes we do not see one for weeks together—and the martins have increased in numbers, till last year they had 170 nests about my house and buildings, and this year there are 237, and more will be built yet.

The food in the sparrows killed at first (June, 1870) was examined and found to be mostly corn and broken maize, for which they went to a farmyard nearly half a mile off. In this way becoming much interested in the subject, I investigated the food and habits of sparrows with special care during some seven years, and worked pretty hard collecting from a wide extent of country, and examining the food in thousands, old and young; old ones from all sorts of places at all times of year, young ones from wherever I could get any all through the breeding season. The result, confirmed by occasional examinations up to the present time, was that I found that sparrows destroy even fewer insects than I had supposed. The food in the old ones was almost all corn during the whole year; green peas (of course bitten up small) were also found in them in summer; and in May and June, when corn is scarce, a few wild seeds, chiefly of grass. No insect has been found by me in a sparrow between September and March. I have not often found one at any season (particularly between June and March) in a sparrow old enough to feed itself, and have very seldom found any number of insects in one—even when corn could scarcely be got. The food of young sparrows was found to vary greatly; of those taken at the same time from one farmyard, some broods contained insects, some corn, green or ripe, or green peas, and a few green seeds, chiefly of grass, and in many would be a mixture of some or all these. The kind of food by no means always depends on the age of the birds; the first food after being hatched given to a young sparrow is commonly a small green caterpillar, but large callow ones a few days old are often full of ripe wheat, and some ready to fly contain insects chiefly. My observations showed plainly that to get results of any value an investigation of sparrows' food must be made on a large scale; otherwise very erroneous deductions may be made. For instance, once in June I found in forty-seven nestling sparrows of all ages from one farmyard scarcely anything except old wheat and green peas; there were only about six insects in the whole number. From such an instance it might be inferred that nestling sparrows are fed with little else than corn and peas, while another instance taken alone might be thought to prove that insects were almost their only food.

The following is, according to my observation, an outline of the life-history of a country sparrow. After being reared in the nest on some or all the sorts of food just mentioned, according to the notions of his parents (and these notions differ greatly with the same opportunities), if there is nothing ready for him in the fields, he lives, on corn and green peas if these things are to be found, about buildings, yards, gardens and roads (unless a field of early peas tempt him out sooner), till corn is forming in the ear, when he and his kind begin their ravages on it as soon as it will afford them a little milky stuff in the ears. If he does not leave the nest till this time or later, he quickly betakes himself to the cornfields. As time goes on, he and his fellows go further into and stay more in the fields, till, by September or earlier, most of them live in them altogether, sitting on the hedges by day and roosting in them by night, and feeding entirely on corn, until, generally at some time in October, all the corn on the stubbles is sprouting[2] or rotting; he then eats a few wild seeds; but when these and damaged corn are all he can get in the fields, he soon leaves them and goes home to houses and farmyards, getting his food with fowls and pigs, on the roads and at stacks, especially after these are threshed out. He lives thus till spring, except that at autumn seed-time he has a turn at the wheatfields, picking up what grain he can get at before it has time to sprout. In March I have sometimes found a small soft beetle or two, occasionally a small caterpillar, or often a piece of tender green leaf, among his cropful of corn. At spring seed-time he has another turn at the corn fields. In May and June he often finds it difficult to get as much corn as he would like, and goes eagerly to any place where he has a chance of getting it, but often has to make shift with wild seeds; he seems, too, to like a little green grass seed with his old corn, and contrives to find some very early in the year; most likely in warm sheltered places near buildings. I once found some sparrows full of chickweed-seed in May. At this season he gets wild seeds near houses, in gardens or meadows adjoining, but, so far as I have observed, does not go far into the fields for them. Now we come round to the time when he can get plenty of his favourite food; perhaps green peas in June, and any amount of green corn in July.

A few town sparrows which I have examined, had little in them beside corn, much of which they get where fowls and pigeons are fed; they get also unbitten oats and some grass-seeds from horse-droppings in the streets, as well as a good deal of bread-crumbs and other waste in towns. Sparrows leave towns and villages for a while, and go to the fields when plenty of corn is to be got there. At spring seed-time I have seen a great crowd of sparrows along the hedge of a newly sowed field near a small town. I believe that most of the London sparrows go out of town at harvest-time.

That sparrows live chiefly on corn is pretty evident, independently of any examination of the food in them. Where plenty of corn can be had for the greater part of the year, they will make shift for a short time with wild seeds or insects; but where there is never any corn there are no sparrows, and where there is little of it but few. Not many are to be seen in moorland countries where corn is not grown. I heard some years ago that at Mauritius, where they had been introduced, no corn being grown in the island, the sparrows kept to the towns and did not go into the country.

Of ripe corn, sparrows prefer wheat to oats, and oats to barley; probably because wheat wants no shelling, and oats are easily shelled. They neither like to eat barley with its husks, nor the trouble of getting these off; though in default of other corn they will eat it, sometimes unshelled, sometimes after partially or almost entirely shelling it. Sparrows like green barley, and it is often the first corn they can find in neighbouring fields forward enough to eat; they will then stick to it till it becomes too hard to shell well, when they leave it for the wheat. Some farmers in Norfolk sow a narrow strip of oats at that side of a wheat-field from which the sparrows are expected to come; the oats, being ready for them earlier than the wheat, keep them occupied and save the wheat for some time. Although sparrows feed greedily on green corn, yet while feeding on it they always like to get some ripe corn for a change, and will then go a long way to any place where old wheat can be got, as where straw with a little waste grain in it has been put down in a yard, or a haystack has been thatched with it. They will also turn over horse-droppings for unbitten oats in a road alongside a field of green corn which they are feeding on.

The destruction of corn by sparrows is very great, but varies so much in different places that I cannot pretend to guess the proportion of the whole corn crop of the country to which it amounts. The mischief is greatest near towns and villages. As an instance, a friend who, a few years back, had four acres of barley close to the village of Writtle, near Chelmsford, told me that the sparrows devoured the whole crop, not leaving a grain.

Without going further into the detail of sparrows' food, the question whether they are or not, on the whole, useful to the farmer by destroying insects can, I think, easily be decided. They seldom go far from houses and roads into the fields except when they can get corn there, and then for the sole purpose of eating it, as the contents of their crops prove. Going through the fields in May and June, when most insects are given to their young, I seldom see a sparrow much more than a hundred yards from a house or road. Speaking broadly, it may be said that, unless very near houses and roads, sparrows take no insects in the fields. If they did any good to the farmer in this way, the land near their haunts would be worth more per acre to cultivate than the enormously greater extent of ground where sparrows never take an insect. But this is not the case. The greater ravages they commit on the corn are the only noticeable effects produced by sparrows on land near places always frequented by them.

With regard to wild seeds eaten by sparrows, I do not think that the land close to their usual haunts is perceptibly more free from weeds than elsewhere. I have not found weed-seeds in sparrows shot on the corn crops and stubbles till late in autumn; and a few days after half-rotten corn and wild seeds were found in their crops they all left the fields. I do not, however, remember working this out thoroughly to the last in more than one season. The sparrow seems to be 'a parasite on civilization' which has followed the cultivation of wheat from warmer countries (his rising later and roosting earlier than other birds, in the warmest places he can find, point to this), and living and sleeping in the fields does not suit him unless in warm weather; so cold, as well as want of corn, may have something to do with driving him home. In seasons when much rain spoils the corn on the stubbles early, and the weather keeps warm, some of the sparrows which have made the fields their home ever since they flew from the nest may perhaps stay in them longer after the grain is all spoilt, and eat more wild seeds than in drier and colder seasons. I heard from Mr. J. H. Gurney that he found much weed-seed in sparrows last autumn. There was rain enough in September, 1884, to sprout the grain on the stubbles, followed by very warm weather. Difference in the seasons may account for the difference between his experience and mine. Sparrows eat weed-seeds in the fields only when they can no longer get corn there, and, I believe, generally but for a short time.

Finches feed on them much longer, remaining in flocks on the stubbles long after all the corn and sparrows have disappeared thence. Linnets depend so much on wild seeds that they are numerous only on or near waste ground which will provide them with a constant supply of them. These birds are scarce here, but I have known a number of them to stay all the summer about a field foul with chickweed. The greenfinch feeds chiefly on wild seeds, and, I think, prefers them to corn; he does very little harm to the farmer, unless he grows seeds of the turnip and cabbage class (cruciferæ). I have found scarcely any seed of this class, cultivated or wild (including charlock) in house sparrows, while the crop of the tree sparrow (the indigenous sparrow of this part of the world) is commonly full of it. The few wild seeds I have found in sparrows have not mostly been those of weeds particularly troublesome to the farmer, and my observations have not led me to believe that these birds do any appreciable good by eating them. If I am right in the similar conclusion I have come to with regard to insects, any good the sparrow may do is a question for the gardener.

In gardens sparrows do much mischief, as by feeding off young peas, eating green peas from the pods, stripping gooseberry bushes of their fruit-buds, destroying flowers, etc. The question remains whether they do good enough in gardens to make up for such misdeeds. Now, to prove that sparrows are really useful, it is not enough to show that they destroy some injurious insects; it must also be proved that, in their absence, other birds would not destroy them, at least as effectually. This can be found out only in one way—by banishing the sparrows from a place for some years. My object in letting no sparrows live about my house, buildings, and garden has been not only to protect the martins (perhaps it would be enough for this to kill those sparrows only which go near their nests), but also to get a better test of the utility of sparrows than could otherwise be got by any amount of examination of the food in them. My place is a fair specimen of the country, having flower and kitchen gardens, shrubberies, and small orchard, surrounded by meadows, with cornfields within easy reach all round. All birds except sparrows have been let alone there.

Sparrows having been almost entirely absent for many years, if they took insects which other birds do not, such insects would have become very numerous, and the food in sparrows killed there would show this. Now it has been quite as unusual to find an insect in an old sparrow there as elsewhere. Fifty old sparrows, and young ones which could feed themselves, were killed one summer about my buildings and garden, with food in their crops. This food, carefully examined (as in all cases, with a lens), was found to be corn, milky, green, and ripe, and sometimes green peas from my garden; only two small insects were found in the whole number. The food in them has been much the same every year. Examining the old birds, however, is not test enough, as they eat very few insects anywhere; but if any were the peculiar prey of sparrows, they would be found in quantity in any young ones bred about my place. To test this, when a pair or two of sparrows, as happens most years, contrive, by keeping clear of the buildings, to escape being shot long enough to build a nest and hatch young ones, these have been taken (by choice when about half-grown), and the food in them carefully examined. It has varied greatly, but certainly there were not more insects among it, I think less, than there usually are where sparrows abound. In the only nest known of one year, the food in the four young ones was chiefly green peas, with some grains of green wheat, one small beetle, and some half-dozen small insects of species unknown to me. In the only nest the following year the young ones had little in them except corn—old wheat, if I remember rightly. Some broods have contained small beetles (which, mostly soft ones, I have found in sparrows old and young, from all sorts of places, oftener than caterpillars) and a few wild seeds. One brood had a mixture of beetles and ripe wheat. One grasshopper's leg and a very few pieces of earwigs have also been found. Of caterpillars, said to be kept down by sparrows, only two small ones in eight callow birds, from two nests taken at the same time, have been found in all the years that these nestlings have been examined, and no trace of an aphis. The absence of caterpillars is the only difference that I have noticed in the character of the insect-food in young sparrows at my place and elsewhere. On the whole, the deduction from the food test during fifteen years seems to be that the sparrows are useless, and that the insects which would be given to their young by them if they were allowed to live in numbers about my premises would be so much food taken, when they most want it, from better birds which live entirely, or nearly so, on insects, and thus keep them, especially caterpillars, down so effectively in the absence of sparrows that, when a chance pair of these come and build, there are few of their favourite sorts for them.

After the almost total absence of sparrows for many years from my garden, everything seems to do as well as elsewhere, many things much better. Young peas need no protection from birds, young lettuces are not eaten off, green peas are not picked out of the pods (except one year in the fifteen, when the ox-eye and blue tits devoured all the late peas), and the gooseberry buds are not picked out; the crops of this fruit have therefore been very heavy year after year. Before the sparrows were banished, at some time in winter, the gooseberry buds were often nearly all picked out (the bushes are sometimes killed in this way). This mischief would be done in a few days, when nobody happened to be about the garden; it was impossible to know when it would be done so as to catch the birds at it. One thing seemed to show that titmice, commonly accused, were not the culprits; a few buds were always left untouched at the end of every shoot otherwise stripped of them. This looked like the work of sparrows or finches; they could not get at these because the end of the twig would not carry them; but a titmouse, with his strong clutch, could easily get at the buds there, hanging, as he often does, back downwards. It has often been said that birds take buds to get at grubs or insects in them, which would have destroyed the buds. I believe that this is a pure fiction, without any foundation in fact; at any rate I never met with or heard of a case in which it could be proved, or seemed at all likely. It would be against common sense to suppose that all the buds on a number of bushes held insects except those near the ends of the shoots, and that none of these held one (they always grow well enough). When the birds have been budding the bushes, and the few buds left burst into leaf, besides those at the ends, here and there one does so on the stripped parts, and perhaps nine times out of ten the reason of its being left is plain—the bud contained no flower. Anyone can verify this fact. I have heard it said 'the birds must take the buds for insects, you may find the buds dropped on the ground.' This is a specimen of the slipshod observations and inferences that people too often make. Birds shell the buds, and seem to eat only the part which would form the flowers; this is most easily proved in bullfinches, for they will come to a garden or orchard and live there exclusively on fruit-buds. I once shot one on a cherry-tree full to the mouth with its buds; these were nicely shelled to the part which would open into the bunches of flowers, looking something like little cauliflower heads, and showing the little blossom buds. Bullfinches, however, did not do the rapid budding already mentioned; they are rather scarce here, and come one at a time—sometimes not at all during a whole winter—and one or two could not do nearly so much work in the time. We know well enough what they do; when they come they stop, and are sure to be seen before long. I am unwillingly obliged to make an exception, and allow bullfinches to be shot in the garden in winter; not in summer, for neither they nor other birds do any harm in my garden to buds after they have opened, nor to the fruit-flowers. I have heard of such harm, but have never met with an instance of its being done.

Other birds are often blamed for the misdeeds of sparrows, and killing out these is the best way of finding out what mischief is done by them and what by the others. It showed me plainly that the sparrows were guilty, and that greenfinches, chaffinches, and titmice were innocent, so far as buds, lettuces, and generally peas were concerned. If the finches have taken any green peas at all, they have not done so to a noticeable extent. The greenfinches and chaffinches are so numerous in my garden that they would eat every seed of cabbage, radish, and other cruciferæ, were the seed-beds not netted; if a net anywhere lies on the ground, scarcely a seed escapes them there. They often get under the nets and cannot find their way out, so there is no doubt as to what birds eat these seeds. I believe that sparrows will eat the seeds of some, at least, of the cruciferæ, when sprouting, but in this respect the finches are as bad or worse. It is, however, easy to net the beds, and then, so far as I can see, the birds in question do no harm in the garden. Chaffinches destroy a good many insects; I think many more than sparrows. Titmice abound in my garden; they destroy a great many caterpillars when they have young ones, and, unless when they take the peas, do no harm in the garden except to fruit, particularly pears, by picking small holes in them near the stalk. They are very destructive in this way. The results above described go to prove that sparrows are much worse than useless in the garden.

Like other corn and seed eating birds, sparrows do not eat fruit much; they will, however, sometimes attack the cherries, and then do so very wastefully, pulling them off and dropping them. The question whether sparrows protect foliage to a perceptible extent, can easily be decided by comparing roadside hedges, always frequented by them, with those far in the fields, where they do not go at their insect-taking season. So far as I have observed, the leaves are not more eaten by caterpillars on the latter than on the former.

Birds' friends and foes seem to agree in thinking that all small birds are alike, though differing in food and habits as much as sheep and wolves. This is a great mistake: some birds do us nothing but good, others are of a mixed character; and whether these do us more good or harm may depend on circumstances. The sparrow differs from other more or less mischievous small birds, much as rats do from squirrels and fieldmice. Those who, wishing to destroy sparrows, shoot also every other small bird they come across, thinking them all much the same, kill out all the other sorts before they can thin the numbers of the sparrows to any extent, so much more cunning are these. If stories about the ill-effects of killing sparrows have any foundation in fact, these ill-effects were doubtless due to killing the useful birds as well.

Sparrows have been introduced into new countries, as America, Australia, and New Zealand, and evil reports are made of them in all. So far as I know, in those countries, nobody pretends to say from practical experience that the sparrows do any appreciable good to make up for their ravages on corn, etc. I was in North America for sixteen months thirty-five years ago. There were no sparrows there then, things went well without them; and I thought the country fortunate in the absence of the vermin. It is creditable to the 'cuteness of Americans and colonists to have found out the sparrows so quickly, while here people never seem tired of writing nonsense about the benefits conferred on us by 'sparrows and other small birds.' Where sparrows, however, have recently been introduced, people are much better able than we are here to judge them justly, because they can remember how things were before the pests were brought there, while here, where they have abounded for ages, when people say (just as they would in the new countries, had sparrows always been there) that we could not live without sparrows, they cannot be contradicted with the same certainty, because we have no experience of what would happen in their absence. On a small scale I have obtained an advantage like that of the Americans and colonists; it is very desirable that the same experiment should be tried on a large scale, by killing out all the sparrows for some years, not only in gardens, but throughout a large district—the less other birds were killed the better the experiment. In this way only can the sparrow question in this country be settled beyond all dispute.

On the whole, taking together the results of the introduction of sparrows into new countries, those of my experiment of banishing them, and of my examination of their food and habits, it is my decided opinion that the entire absence of sparrows from this country would be a great benefit to all, especially to farmers and gardeners.

Even if the harm done by the sparrow were balanced by good done in destroying insects and weed seeds which would not be taken by other birds, his banishment of the martin would condemn him, for the martin is no doubt a far more useful bird. For about six months in the year (during part of which same time only does the sparrow take any appreciable number of them) the martin lives here entirely on insects, and does no harm at all. Not liking to kill martins, I cannot give a list of the insects they feed on, but know that they destroy tipulidæ (daddy-longlegs class), beetles, moths, and winged aphides. Biting-midges were certainly unknown in the district in which I was born and brought up and still live, while we had plenty of martins; but when these had nearly all disappeared some thirty years ago, the midges came and remained ever since in such numbers, and bite so viciously, that no one can sit in a garden on a calm evening from May till October. Whether these things were cause and effect, or mere coincidence, I do not know; but since my martins have again become numerous, the midges have nearly disappeared in my garden, from which for years they used to drive us. As they drift with the wind like fog, and one colony of martins cannot clear the country of midges for many miles round, my place cannot be expected to be always quite free from them.

If martins abounded, as, in the absence of sparrows, they would almost everywhere, they would do an immense amount of good, coursing about over gardens, meadows and fields, and destroying multitudes of injurious insects in the winged state, especially when these are shifting their quarters to new ground. I am under the impression that there have been more complaints of red maggot in wheat-ears since the martins have become scarce; it is not unlikely that they may take the parent wheat-midge, as well as turnip-fly (or flea)[3] and beetle which breeds wireworm, at any rate when they are travelling through the air.

If people everywhere could be induced to take interest in the preservation of martins, farmers and gardeners would derive great benefit, not only from the good which these birds would do them, but even more from the lessening of the numbers of sparrows which would ensue, seeing that martins cannot be kept without killing the sparrows. In no other way is this most desirable effect so likely to be brought about, particularly in the case of sparrows which come out from towns and villages to harry the fields. Many townspeople like sparrows, thinking that they are the only birds which will live in towns. They do not seem to know that if there were no sparrows, they would have, instead of them, plenty of martins, as much pleasanter to look at as squirrels are than rats. White, in his 'Natural History of Selborne,' said, 'There are few towns or large villages but what abound with house-martins.' The sparrows persecuted them badly in his time, and he had had them shot when they deprived his martins of their nests. Most towns, and the outskirts of London, would certainly again be full of martins, if they had fair play. How, far they would go into the crowded part of London I cannot say, but, a few years back, some of their nests were built at Westbourne Grove. This shows that they could find food in or near the crowded parts.

Among all the sentimental writing about birds, we never find a word about the extermination of the best of them by the worst. Yet the martins are no doubt the most desirable birds to have about our houses, even apart from their utility. They are less graceful in their flight than swallows, but their far greater numbers where they can keep their nests, their habit of nesting and flying in company and generally higher, and their bright black and pure white plumage, make them a better feature in the view, and from April to October they show far more life in the air near houses than all the rest of the birds put together. To any one used to see them, a place looks dull in summer without martins. No birds are more amiable and kindly among themselves, or show more confidence in man. The habits of none are more interesting or more easily observed. It seems strange that people do not see all this, and the cruel persecution of martins by sparrows, which will often pull small young martins from their nests and drop them on the ground—or, seeing this persecution, can feel towards the sparrows otherwise than they would towards rats, if seen constantly carrying off young chickens. I wish that all the sparrow advocates could see my martins, that they might know how much they lose by tolerating the sparrows, which comes to the same thing as killing all the martins. This indifference on the subject is partly due to the scarcity of martins—few are now acquainted with or know anything about them. When they were plentiful and well known they were held almost sacred. People acquainted with them cannot but like martins; in Lapland they put earthen pots on their houses for the martins to nest in; American Indians of old used to hang up gourds near their lodges for their purple martins. English cottagers generally feel kindly towards the martins, but cannot protect them from the sparrows. Well-to-do people will not let them build about their windows or often even on their houses, and the sparrows will not let them keep a nest on their out-buildings, so there are no martins about them to become acquainted with. The disappearance of the martins is a loss really of national importance, and it is much to be wished that some colonies of them should be encouraged, that people might see what they are like. Farmers particularly have an interest in doing this; it is very important to them that people in towns and villages should have some motive for destroying sparrows.

One accusation, and only one, is commonly made against martins; that they bring bugs into houses: after full and careful investigation I can say with certainty that this is a mistake, but it is a very natural one for those who do not look closely into such things. Martins' nests are infested by a parasite nearly allied to that in question; this is a distinct species, never grows to half the size of the other, its habits are different—for instance, it will come out of the nest and run about in full daylight, when seen much to the detriment of the poor martins; it will not live in a house, and is perfectly harmless to man. In proof of this, mumbers of martins' nests have been built on my house for many years; there are now, besides those on outbuildings adjoining, thirty-nine nests built on the house near the windows, and there is not a bug in it; not one of these, or of several other parasites that infest the birds and their nests, have ever been seen in the house. Swallows' nests are infested by a very similar parasite, but larger and of a darker colour, also perfectly harmless to man. These must often fall from the nests down the chimneys, but are never found living in a house; fortunately for the swallows, their nests are where people cannot see these parasites about them, and the swallows' reputation is not damaged.

A few words may here not be out of place about the effect on the number of other birds of the absence of sparrows from my place, and of the consequent abundance of martins. Before and since the martins have become numerous we have had plenty of swallows: from the places they are in their nests cannot well be counted, but their numbers seem to vary much from year to year. My general impression is that the numbers of swallows about a place are but slightly diminished by the presence of a great number of martins; and I do not see that swallows increase much in numbers where the martins disappear. As the two species do not displace or replace each other to any great extent, it would seem, though they probably eat some insects in common, that their food is mainly different, and that we need both species to destroy different insects. So far as I have observed, swallows as a rule take larger insects than martins. From the fact that the martins can maintain themselves in far greater numbers about a place, it is evident that their peculiar food must be much more abundant than that of the swallows.[4]

Besides those already mentioned, most common birds abound in my place; these are all more useful or harmless, or both, than sparrows, and I think that most of them do better and are more numerous for the absence of these. It is difficult to make out and speak positively about partial displacement of other birds by sparrows. So many things may affect the numbers of various birds, and it is impossible to know how many of each species would be at my place were it infested with sparrows, and, again, how far, in the absence of sparrows, the numbers of other insect-eating birds are affected by my multitude of martins. I can only say what is my general impression. The harmless and useful hedge-sparrow for instance abounds, thriving in bad times on waste which would feed his greedy namesake, were he tolerated here. No doubt much of the sparrow's food is waste, about houses as well as roads and fields; but this waste in his absence would go to support better birds. Chaffinches feed on the roads like sparrows, so far as they give them a chance, and would be more numerous in their absence.

It may be said—in the absence of sparrows, would not other corn-eating birds increase enough to do as much mischief? My answer is that finches in the same numbers would be much less mischievous than sparrows, not having so great a preference for corn, and living more in the fields on wild seeds. Again, finches could not increase to the same extent as sparrows, as will be explained presently. Yellowhammers are very fond of corn, but their numbers have in most parts been reduced to a small fraction of what they formerly were by the practice of trimming the sides of hedges and ditches in summer, and so cutting off the supply of coarse grass seeds which support these birds when no corn is to be had. Yellowhammers will never be numerous enough to do serious damage. It has already been shown that finches are much less mischievous than sparrows in the garden. Yellowhammers, so far as I have observed (and they are numerous here), do no harm in the garden, unless by eating grass seeds sown on a lawn.

The only birds which seem to have become fewer here during the last fifteen years are blackcaps and garden warblers, which are among our best singers but are most voracious fruit-eaters. Both species were numerous here till the martins had fifty nests, when most of the blackcaps disappeared rather suddenly, and garden warblers two or three years later; there have been but a few of each species every year since. This looks as if these birds which live on insects till the fruit begins to ripen have been in great part displaced by the destruction by the martins of the winged insects which would breed the larvæ which blackcaps and garden warblers feed on.

Flycatchers, which live on flying insects, and wagtails and redstarts, which do so to a great extent, are at least as numerous here as I ever saw them anywhere. Some of the wilder birds, as the ring-dove, stock-dove and turtle-dove, always breed near the house, and are not disturbed by shooting the sparrows, having quite sense enough to disregard noise which does them no harm. I may here remark that the sparrows are not often shot in the trees; it is almost useless to try to do so, to say nothing of the risk of shooting other birds by mistake. When a few sparrows, avoiding the buildings, try to live in the trees, the fowls' food soon lures them to their fate.

It seems to me that the numbers of sparrows have long been and still are greatly increasing, till they have become in many parts a serious evil to the farmer. The reasons for this increase are plain enough; sparrows breed very fast; I know not how many times in the year, but many of them lay soon after April 20: they nest all through May, June, and July, and a few have come to build in my martins' nests in the first half of August. But the numbers of any wild creature depend less on its natural rate of increase than on checks, the chief being the want of food at the worst times, especially in the case of domestic parasites like rats, mice, and sparrows. These have no natural enemies in the way of wild birds or beasts of prey to thin their numbers to any extent; consequently they must be kept down by man, or they will only be limited by starvation, and will always increase up to the point which the lowest period of food supply will allow. Now people generally do not destroy sparrows, or even take their nests to any extent, less I think than formerly, some because they do not care to take the trouble, others because they are deceived by what they read about 'sparrows and other small birds.' Many things keep increasing the food-supply of sparrows at bad times; perhaps the chief thing is the greater number of horses used and oats given them, and consequent increase of food for them on the roads at all times of the year. If all oats given to horses were crushed, the numbers of sparrows would be much reduced; removing the droppings from the streets of London has of late years greatly lessened the numbers of sparrows there. Another thing in their favour is the change from the old plan of threshing by hand in the barn, whereby the waste grain went into the farmyard, where most of it was eaten by pigs and fowls, the sparrows having to compete with them to get any. There are therefore, as a rule, fewer sparrows to be seen in farmyards in winter now than formerly, but a great many more along roads, especially near stacks. These being of late years threshed out by machine in the fields where there are no pigs or fowls, the waste feeds the sparrows for a long time. In the part where I live, after a stack has been thrashed out, the straw is taken away a little at a time, each removal exposing a lot of waste corn which, with what they pick up on the roads, supports a dense shoal of sparrows for weeks or months. In many ways, too, the increase of population and wealth in the country promotes the increase of sparrows by supplying them with food, waste or otherwise, in the worst times for them—that is, when there is least corn about—worst of all, when the ground is covered with snow.

Though originally a warm-country bird and sensitive to cold, the sparrow knows but too well how to take care of himself here, and, from his habits and knowledge where best to find food at bad times, is much less liable to starvation in frosty and snowy weather than other birds. In the three severe winters, 1878-81, the ranks of most common birds were so much thinned that it has taken three or four mild winters to restore them to their usual numbers, while the sparrows, so far as I saw, did not become sensibly fewer.

For my part, I believe, and, so far as fifteen years' trial goes, find it so, that we can do as well without sparrows as without rats and cockroaches. If farmers destroy all their own sparrows, they will still suffer from the swarms that come out from towns and villages.


NOTE.

It would be vain to expect people in general to exert themselves to abate the nuisance, especially as sparrows are at least as cunning as rats; and the usual methods of netting are not very effective. What we want is some plan which would enable one man to keep a village, a very few a town, nearly free from sparrows. I think that I have devised such a plan, on the principle of a decoy-pipe: it is not worth while to describe this, before trying it.

A few hints derived from long experience may be useful to any one who wishes to investigate the food of sparrows himself. To examine the food in an old sparrow the best plan is, if anything can be felt in it, to take out the gullet. This can be done very quickly with the fingers thus: open the feathers between the back and side of the neck, and tear open the loose thin bare skin there; this will expose the wind-pipe and gullet. Having rubbed down from outside any food near the mouth, take hold of and break off the upper end of the gullet, pull out clear of skin and feathers, and then take hold of and break off the lower end of the gullet. The food can now be pressed out from the skin-bag, or this may be kept till convenient to cut open. Sparrows killed just before they go to roost mostly have their crops full; their digestion is quick, and little or nothing is likely to be found in the crops of those caught at night at roost, or shot in the morning. The food goes a little at a time into the gizzards of old sparrows, and is there soon too much ground up to be worth examining; but in the crops the most delicate insect, if there, can be detected.

When first hatched, a sparrow's gizzard is small, but it quickly increases in size, till by the time the bird is half grown—'stump feathered'—it has become a large bag, very different from and much larger than that of an old one. Up to this age, at which nestlings have most food in them, there is no enlarged gullet or crop, and the food goes straight into the gizzard; so this must be examined to find out what young sparrows have been fed with. As the bird becomes feathered, the gizzard becomes smaller and harder; by the time it can fly the gizzard is like that of an old bird. Young sparrows, like old ones, have most food in them towards evening; if taken early in the morning, little will be found in them, A watchmaker's lens answers well to examine the food; with it the skin of the smallest caterpillar can be made out.

Many people have rather hazy notions about the Wild Birds Protection Acts, and some may think that they forbid the killing of sparrows during close time. Now the Act of 1880 states that the section prohibiting the killing or taking of Wild Birds between March 1 and August 1, 'does not apply to the owner or occupier of any land, or to any person authorized by the owner or occupier of any land, killing or taking any wild bird on such land not included in the schedule hereto annexed.' The sparrow is not included in the schedule, and therefore the only protection given by the Act to sparrows is that it forbids killing or taking them on other people's land without leave between March 1 and August 1. The Act of 1881 (to explain that of 1880) simply legalizes the sale of birds legally killed in close time, and puts the lark into the schedule.


HouseSparrowGurney-59.png

Wheat-ear—after the sparrow.



  1. To give one instance, a few years ago, seeing sparrows about a few martins' nests on a new small house near my own, I asked the man who lived there whether he liked the sparrows. He said: 'I hate them, and am throwing stones at them all day, but cannot keep them from the martins' nests.' I lent him a gun; his son, a boy about twelve years old, took kindly to shooting the sparrows, killed I think nearly 200 in less than a month, and always kept the place free from them; in two years there were twenty-four martins' nests on the house. The man then died, and the next tenant, having no son to shoot the sparrows, did not trouble himself about the martins, and the sparrows cleared them all out in one season. The martins have often built a few nests, but I do not think that any young ones have flown there since.
  2. Sparrows, unlike larks, do not seem to like sprouted corn.
  3. A neighbouring farmer has just told me that he has seen my martins in hundreds flying close to the ground over seed beds of cabbage, etc., taking turnip-flea springing, as is their habit, a few inches from the ground.
  4. The insect food of these and other birds is a subject which much wants investigating.