Sandy Griswold. November 10, 1889. Omaha Sunday Bee 19(144): 10.
The Birds of Nebraska.
Driven From Home by the Pestilential English Sparrow.
Their Songs Heard No More
Startling Increase of the Foreign Vagabonds—in Twenty-Four Years They Have Spread Over the Entire Country.
A Feathered Ishmaelite.
It is an undeniable fact that within the past few years an enormous decrease in our native birds has taken place. In a great measure this has been brought about by the ruthless and illegal killing of these beautiful creatures, slain indiscriminately in sheer wantonness, or for a greed of gain. It is a well-known but deplorable truth that the heads and wings and whole skins of the birds have in late years been an exceedingly marketable commodity, as is indisputably testified to by the countless thousands that perch upon the hats of your sisters and your cousins and your aunts, although just now the feminine fancy is running largely to ribbons and flowers. This has been occasioned, in a great degree, by the clamor of the press for protection for these harmless beauties of wood, meadow and glen. If such ornaments must be indulged in, dealers should be compelled to traffic in only domestic or game birds, or couldn't the pestilential English sparrow be set aside exclusively for this purpose? The most liberal and romantic of all ornithologists cannot conform his little, ugly, dust-begrimed and soot-besmeared shape into one of beauty or twist his miserable, discordant chirp, at any season of the year, into a gush of bewildering song.
The English sparrow is unquestionably an imported nuisance, and is rapidly becoming the farmer's principal ornithological execration. They were brought to this country some twenty-five years ago and introduced at Central Park, New York, for the express purpose of destroying a certain black worm which infests the eastern cities in unlimited swarms in certain years, to the disfigurement and defoliation of all sorts of vegetation and the insufferable annoyance of the citizens. The beneficent philanthropist who imported twenty-four pairs of this little feathered pest can now cast his eye over this broad and vasty country to its furthermost nooks, and count them by the million and the billion. They were supposed to belong to the family insectivora, but careful observation has proven conclusively that this class of provender forms the most meagre ingredient in their daily diet, and that instead they are almost wholly gramnivorous. I was delegated eight years ago to make an investigation upon this particular head by the Ohio Ornithological society, and my researches were thorough and convincing. An English sparrow will fly away in horror from anything that even bears the vermiculated shape, and I have never known them to molest insects, or their larvae, of any description, and I have slaughtered them by the score and minutely analyzed the contents of their crops. To be sure, out of pure devilment, they will make a savage dart at some gaudy butterfly occasionally, but no one has ever yet seen one with a caterpillar beetle, spider or worm in its beak. Kill an English sparrow, open his crop, and you will find it stuffed with seeds, fine gravel and grain, if the latter article is accessible at all, and they are generally well fed in this respect, if only from the excrement of the horses in the street. Farmers, in these western states even, are at least rapidly learning of the wonderfully destructive capacities of this vile bird. Last season, in the middle eastern states, the wheat fields fairly swarmed with them, and they devoured bushels and bushels of this precious cereal. Whole fields, I have been told, were laid to waste. All through the hot sultry days of June and early July the birds swooped down like bees upon the golden grain, and gorged themselves to bursting, almost, from early morn until dewy eve.
What will be the result within a few more years?
The sparrow is increasing a thousand-fold every day. They lay and hatch every hour from the last of February till the middle of November. Their period of incubation is short, and they bring forth several broods each season. Hot or cold, wet or dry, it doesn't seem to make any difference to this cast-iron constitutioned foreigner.
Another most objectionable feature is that they are driving away all our sweet little native songsters, and no more are they beheld in their wonted haunts in the orchard, the garden and the door yard. While I have never seen an English sparrow in combat with any other species of bird, I know that in a great measure they are responsible for the disappearance of the catbird, robin, blue bird, martin and swallow, and that they are a philopolemic, Ishmaelitish tribe, and every day witnesses gladitorial conflicts among themselves. The cock sparrow will stand up and strike with wing and foot like a well-ordered game chanticleer, and some times they become so oblivious to all surroundings in their deadly desperation that you can almost walk up and catch them. However, I do not consider that it is on account of their pugnacious propensities or their warfare on other birds that has caused this wholesale vanishment, but a simple crowding out by mere force of numbers, occupying places that our native birds formerly found desirable for themselves and the strong dislike all their kindred evince for them.
Formerly there was hardly a yard in city or town, without its pole, surmounted with blue-bird or martin-box, while to-day only upon isolated country premises can such an ornament be seen. The sparrows took possession of them, and when citizens became convinced that they were established there for good, bird-boxes were taken down and the ugly little interloper made to shift for himself. But he is ready in ingenuity as the defacement of almost every cornice and building facade in the city attests.
What a woeful commentary upon our laws is this regretted scarcity to-day of our native birds, compared with their plentifulness of fifteen or twenty years ago. Then a ramble through the woods and fields was fraught with most pleasurable sensations, all attuned to one grand chorus of melody that issued from the delicate throats of unnumbered birds. The mournful, far away yet sweet note of the blue bird—dear little harbinger of spring—the homely, though exquisite song of the robin, the plaintive warble of the meadow lark, the peculiar chick-chick-chick of the nuthatch, the whining flicker of the yellowhammer, the petulant caw of the crow, the burst of charming song from the tiny indigo bird, the delightful carolings of the scarlet tanager, the amusing screams of the jay, he ecstasies of the incoming parable cat-bird, the thrush's roundelay, sweeter than that of fabled Philomeia, the redbird's canzonet, the soothing twitter of the skimming swallow, and the drone and hum of myriads of other gay-plumaged prima donna, made an affluence of alien sound and color that was fairly intoxicating to the senses.
But those days have receded until now they seem buried forever in the shadowy realms of romance and memory. Now the birds are almost gone, and the commonest then are the rarest now, while not a few varieties have disappeared entirely.
One of the birds that is rapidly losing identity here is a sweet little fellow with plumage like blood, with a black blotch on either wing, and known as the scarlet tanager. It was once a numerous habitant of Nebraska's prairie copses and thickets, and its delicious song was a welcome sound all through the long, hot summer days, for the tanager sings at all hours with a uniform gusto and volubility and it does not confine itself to mating and soiree concerts, like the majority of our feathered vocalists. This bird has undoubtedly been destroyed for its gaudy plumage alone, as I can conceive of no other cause for its extermination.
As I remarked previously, years ago blue-birds, martins, robins, yellow-birds, pewees, grosbeaks, tomtits, waxwings and numerous other birds were common visitors in every dooryard in all country towns, and the fruit trees, ornamental evergreens and garden shrubbery were their favorite resting places. But now the only ones with temerity enough to reside without the solitude of the rural districts, are the robin and pewee, and rarely the silique-like home of the golden oriole is to be seen depending from the swaying branches of some tall maple or cottonwood, when formerly they were quite plentiful. But few martins, and not a single blue-bird, I venture, nested within the limits of Omaha during the past summer. They have been driven incontinently away. This is to be regretted for while the bluebird heralds the coming of the sunny summer time, the martin brings it with him, and, naturally enough, after the long, dreary winter season, his first glad note is a welcome sound, indeed, and his black-green satiny plumage, flashing in the soft sunlight as he gyrates and convolutes against the blue background above, is a sight that stimulates the fancy, and infuses new life into the heart of the most sordid and indifferent of us all.
Oh! for the powers reviviscent. If mine, I would again fill the world with beauty and song by the restoration of the birds.