Like a lot of history, this is a story about unintended consequences. In 1850, bird lovers set free eight pairs of English sparrows in Brooklyn, New York, to combat cankerworms. Over the next twenty years, the birds were released throughout New England and Pennsylvania.
American sparrows are finches, but this impudent and quarrelsome European import was not a sparrow; it was a weaver finch native to Europe, Asia and North Africa but not the Americas. The prodigious reproductive ability of the imported birds helped them reach San Francisco by 1875, although Utah was still sparrow-free.
While Brigham Young was wintering in St. George in March 1877, George Reynolds sent him the general news from Salt Lake City. The Walker brothers had imported 200 English sparrows and turned them loose in the city in hopes the birds would prove "highly beneficial as insect destroyers, especially to those that injure our fruit trees." The Walkers had already made three unsuccessful attempts to introduce the English sparrow to Utah. On a Saturday night the railroad had at last delivered a shipment of birds from New York in excellent condition, with only seven or eight of them having died on the way. The next day the enterprising brothers "turned loose in Zion ninety pairs."
"This public spirited piece of work has been accomplished at the trifling cost of $100," reported The Salt Lake Tribune, "but the benefit which will result to the Territory from it in future years will be a standing verdict that this sum was put where it will do the most good."
The sparrows were brought to do battle with the codling moth, which had inflicted alarming damage to Utah's fruit crops for several seasons. Despite much talk and many plans on how to rid Utah orchards of this pest, so far nothing had worked. It looked to residents as if the sparrow's "eternal hostility to the codling moth" was just the ticket to saving the territory's fruit crop.
Since English sparrows were most prolific breeders, "this portion of the country will soon be completely stocked with them," The Tribune reported. "It is believed that they are better breeders than the Mormons themselves."
But there was bad news: "Already the boys are commencing to throw rocks at them," George Reynolds informed Brigham Young. The City Council was framing an ordinance to protect the birds "so that they may have a chance to prove how much they will do." The LDS-connected Herald "desired that the teachers of day and Sunday schools will request the children not to kill the sparrows recently set free in the city."
The Tribune agreed that the city had to preserve the birds "from the destructive flippers of the hoodlum boys," and the City Council soon set a penalty for destroying the sparrows. Maybe the hoodlum boys had the right idea all along because it turned out there was a definite downside to the English sparrow: It attacked bluebirds, chickadees, thrushes and robins, quickly running off the native songbirds. Its trashy nests were fire hazards, and in the cleanliness department, suffice it to say that the English sparrow was a dirty bird.
As one naturalist observed: "We certainly would have barred him from this country if we had looked carefully into his character and habits." For Utah, the ultimate irony was that sparrows loved to eat fruit buds even more than cankerworms.
Utah author and historian Will Bagley wishes to thank colleague Ardis Parshall for the sparrow story.