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The House Sparrow, from Harper's


The English house-sparrow, a pert, daring little bird, which is seen in crowds in almost all cities of the Northern United States, was first brought to this country about twenty years ago. It is said the first specimens were liberated in Portland, Maine, where they immediately made themselves at home, and began nest-building and worm-catching as eagerly as when in their native air. Others were soon brought to New York city, and set free in the parks. At that time New York, Brooklyn, and other cities were suffering from a terrible visitor, the loathsome measuring-worm, which made its appearance just as the trees had become lovely with fresh spring green. It infested the streets in armies, hung in horrible webs and festoons from the branches of the shade trees, and ruined the beauty and comfort of the city during the pleasantest season of the whole year. About the first of July, when the worm finished its work, the trees appeared stripped and bare, as if scathed by fire, and a second budding resulted only in scanty foliage late in the season. A month after the worm disappeared, its moth—a small white creature, pretty enough except for its connections—fluttered by thousands through the city, depositing its eggs for the worm of another year. Desperate measures seemed necessary to stop this nuisance, and the question of cutting down all the trees was seriously considered. But relief was at hand. A gentleman, an Englishman, proposed an importation of sparrows, and soon hundreds of these brown-coated little fellows were set loose in different cities. They at once became public pets. Little houses were nailed up on trees and balconies for them to nest in, sidewalks and window-sills were covered with crumbs for their breakfast, and boys were forbidden to stone them or molest them in any way.

Now although the sparrow is very willing to feed on bread-crumbs and seeds, and save itself the trouble of hunting for its dinner, by a wise provision of nature the little ones, until they are fully fledged, can eat only worms and small flies and bugs. As the sparrows have three or four broods during the warm weather, they always have little ones to feed at the very season when worms and other insects destructive to vegetation are the most plentiful. An English naturalist states that in watching a pair of sparrows feeding their little ones, he saw them bring food to the nest from thirty to forty times every day, and each time from two to six caterpillars or worms were brought. It is easy to see from this estimate how quickly the tree worms would disappear, as proved to be the case in the cities where the sparrows were set free.

A very few years after they were introduced not a worm was to be seen. The trees now grow undisturbed in their leafy beauty all through the summer, and many children will scarcely remember the time when their mothers went about the streets where shade trees grew carrying open umbrellas in sunny days and starry evenings to protect themselves from the constantly dropping worms.

It is no wonder that every one is gratefully affectionate to the sparrow. They are very social little birds, and are entirely happy amid the noise and dirt and confusion of the crowded street. They are bold and saucy too, and will stand in the pathway pecking at some stray crust of bread until nearly run over, when they hop away, scolding furiously at being disturbed. They are fond of bathing, and after a rain may be seen in crowds fluttering and splashing in the pools of water in the street. The cold winter does not molest them. They continue as plump and jolly and independent as ever, and chirp and hop about as merrily on a snowy day as during summer.

In the New York city parks these little foreigners are carefully provided for. Prettily built rustic houses may be seen all over Central Park, put up for their especial accommodation. During the summer, when doors and windows are open, the sparrows hold high revels in the Central Park menagerie. They go fearlessly into the eagle's cage, bathe in his water dish, and make themselves very much at home. In the cages occupied by pigeons, pheasants, and other larger birds, the sparrows are often troublesome thieves. They can easily squeeze through the coarse net-work, and no sooner are the feed dishes filled with breakfast than they crowd in and take possession, scolding and fluttering and darting at the imprisoned pigeons and pheasants if they dare to approach.

The smaller parks of New York city contain each about two hundred houses for the sparrows. Some of them are of very simple construction, being made of a piece of tin leader pipe about ten inches long, with a piece of wood fitted in each end. A little round doorway is cut for the birds to enter, and they seem perfectly happy in these primitive quarters. Feed and water troughs are provided, and it is the duty of the park keeper to fill them every morning. The birds know the feeding hour, and come flying eagerly, pushing and scolding, and tumbling together in their hurry for the first mouthful. The greedy little things eat all day. School-children come trooping in, and share their luncheon with them, and even idle and ragged loungers on the park benches draw crusts of bread from their pockets, and throw the sparrows a portion of their own scanty dinner.

It is very easy to study the habits of the sparrow, for it is so bold and sociable that if a little house is nailed up in a balcony, or by a window where people are constantly sitting, a pair of birds will at once take possession, bring twigs and bits of scattered threads and wool for a nest, and proceed to rear their noisy little family. Chirp, chirp, very loud and impatient, three or four little red open mouths appear at the door of the house, the parent birds come flying with worms and flies, and then for a little while the young ones take a nap and keep quiet, when, they wake up again and renew their clamor for food.

If houses are not provided, the sparrow will build in any odd corner—a chink in the wall or in the nooks and eaves of buildings. A pair of London sparrows once made their nest in the mouth of the bronze lion over Northumberland House, at Charing Cross. They are very much attached to their nest, and after the little speckled eggs are laid will cling to it even under difficulties. The sailors of a coasting vessel once lying in a Scotch port frequently observed two sparrows flying about the topmast. One morning the vessel put to sea, when, to the astonishment of the sailors, the sparrows followed, evidently bent upon making the voyage. Crumbs being thrown on the deck, they soon became familiar, and came boldly to eat, hopping about as freely as if on shore. A nest was soon discovered built among the rigging. Fearing it might be demolished by a high wind, at the first landing the sailors took it carefully down, and finding that it contained four little ones, they carried it on shore and left it in the crevice of a ruined house. The parent birds followed, evidently well pleased with the change, and when the vessel sailed away they remained with their young family.

Much has been written about the mischievous doings of the sparrow, and war has been waged against it to a certain extent both here and in England. But the sparrow holds its ground well, and proves in many ways that even if it may drive away robins, and injure grain fields now and then, it more than balances these misdeeds by the thousands of caterpillars, mosquitoes, and other insects which it destroys, thus saving the life of countless trees and plants. The whole year round it is the same active, bustling, jolly creature, and our cities would be lonely and desolate without this little denizen of the street.