The House Sparrow/The House Sparrow in Yarrell's British Birds

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Many of our readers may have read the observations on the Sparrow in the second volume of this work, the fourth edition of which is just completed. As the work is in deserved esteem, and the editor, Professor Newton, is a very accurate observer, the following short extract is taken:

'It may freely be admitted that in many instances the damage done to peas and ripening grain is incalculable; but equally incalculable is the service as often performed by the destruction of insect-pests. Not only are the young, during the earlier part of the breeding-season, mainly fed on destructive caterpillars, but the parents, for their own sustenance, then capture, even on the wing, a large number of noxious insects in their perfect stage.'

Most of the readers of this little book will probably think that Mr. Gurney and Colonel Russell have well reckoned up the 'incalculable service' rendered by sparrows in the destruction of injurious insects. Perhaps Professor Newton himself might admit that Mr. Gurney and Colonel Russell have bestowed more time and labour in the investigation of the habits of this particular bird than Professor Newton has found possible.

In a note on page 96 of Yarrell, Professor Newton refers to the introduction of the sparrow in North America, New Zealand, Australia, etc., and adds, 'in most of these places it will of course oust some of the indigenous species, and will most probably in a few years become an intolerable nuisance.' Much might be said here of other colonies, but the professor's prediction in regard to Australia, at any rate, has been amply verified; for we read:

'The "sparrow question" is one of the most practical and perplexing which the Melbourne Government is now striving to solve, but apparently it is beyond its powers. Many of the sufferers have been summoned to give evidence as to the amount of damage done by the sparrows, and the result proves them to be an infinitely worse plague than either blight or caterpillar. One man tells how in ten days they cleared his vineyard of a ton and a half of grapes, and stripped five fig-trees which had been loaded with fruit. Another had lost £30 worth of fruit from a comparatively small garden. A third had fifteen acres of lucern grass destroyed. A fourth had to sow his peas three times, and each time the sparrows devoured them. A multitude of similar cases are reported.'

In England the increase in the number of sparrows seems to keep pace with the increase of the population and the number of houses. Wherever a new house or cottage is built, it is no sooner inhabited than it receives its family of sparrows. In some of our colonies, however, and notably in North America, it increases with astonishing and alarming rapidity. The climate, the abundant supply of food, and other causes favour their increase.

Professor Newton says, very truly, they 'will of course oust some of the indigenous species.' This they have done in America. 'In place of many sweet songsters which used to grace and enliven our streets,' says Dr. Coues, 'we have these animated manure machines, as every house-owner knows to his cost.'

In London, as we have the largest population—'without feathers,' as Carlyle says,—so have we the largest sparrow population of any city in the world. We have counted a hundred at one time upon the grass in the Temple Gardens, to say nothing of hundreds upon the trees and the surrounding roofs; and it was pretty to see them.

The grounds of Lambeth Palace, where, twenty years ago, were to be found thrushes, blackbirds, chaffinches, and other country birds, now swarm with nothing but sparrows. The gardens in our suburbs, where formerly other birds were common—or not uncommon—have now nothing but sparrows. An occasional visitor is seen—a robin, wren, or titmouse, but it disappears in a day or two. It is a belief that this is due entirely to the increase of sparrows. As Londoners, this is nearly our only grudge against them: we feed them well.[1]

  1. In severe winters a variety of beautiful strangers re-appear and appeal not in vain to our charity. The greatest number was in the severe winter of 1880-81. We had then in our garden (Clapham) thrushes, blackbirds, red-wings, chaffinches, bullfinches, robins, wrens, and titmice, and starlings in great number.