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In Another Time
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Leaders Had Eyes On Sparrow - But Not Closely Enough
Hal Schindler
Published: 06/20/1993 Category: Lifestyles Page: D1

It's possible that the unexpected appearance of the California gull against the hordes of crickets in the Salt Lake Valley in 1848 was in a small way responsible three decades later for an infestation of another kind--the introduction of the English sparrow to Utah--but the blame for that mistake rests solely upon the good intentions of well-meaning citizens.

Because of their astonishing appetite for so-called Mormon crickets, the gulls, which inhabited the islands of the Great Salt Lake, have been looked upon in reverence since their spectacular assault on the clouds of crickets which descended, as one diarist described it, "by the thousands of tons" And twenty years later, when for the fourth consecutive season crops in the territory were threatened by the ravages of grasshoppers and losses amounting to millions of dollars, the Deseret News in its May 4, 1870 edition, asked its readers, "Shall we import the English sparrow?" Pointing to the city of New York as an example, the newspaper explained it imported the sparrow from overseas to deal with grubs and insects infesting fruit orchards in such numbers as to threaten the extinction of fruit crops there.

"Utah is remarkably deficient in scavengers of this kind, consequently the 'hoppers' have it all their own way. A few dozens of these birds might be imported, as an experiment, from the States, at trifling expense and if they did not prove as useful as the gulls did some years ago in destroying the crickets, they would certainly prove a benefit in destroying caterpillars and grubs--which are increasing in the orchards.

These birds are wonderfully prolific, and if a few were imported their numbers would increase so as to make their presence general. It is said that God helps those who help themselves, and in this case might it not be well for someone to take the initiative and lend a helping hand in introducing the English Sparrow?"

The writer who penned that editorial obviously felt the gulls--who continued to inhabit their Salt Lake islands--had no taste for "hoppers." (Or perhaps they still were snacking on pickled crickets.) But it would be seven years before the "helping hand" in the form of Salt Lake City's merchant-bankers, the Walker brothers--Matthew Henry, Joseph Robinson, Samuel Sharp and David Frederick--what they believed was a community service. Three times they tried and failed. On the fourth attempt, success was theirs. On a Sunday afternoon in March of 1877, the brothers turned free 90 pairs of sparrows in the valley. This time it was a writer for The Salt Lake Tribune who waxed enthusiastically about the experiment. "Only seven or eight out of the original number shipped--200--having died in the transit" from New York.

The Tribune editorialist was more concerned about the "coddling moth" as a pest to be reckoned with, if the sparrows were unable to cope with grasshoppers. Elimination of the coddling moth alone would be worth the effort, the newspaper said. "The English sparrow possess two qualities to the purpose in point. They are most prolific breeders, so much so that from the 90 pairs turned loose on Sunday, it is estimated that this portion of the country will soon be completely stocked with them." In short, The Tribune remarked, unable to resist the opportunity to apply the needle, "it is believed that they are better breeders than the Mormons themselves."

Of the sparrows, the writer added, "Their other quality is their eternal hostility to the coddling moth, for which reason they have been especially imported. Great care should be taken to preserve them until they become numerous--the city authorities [should] secure their protection, as far as possible, from the destructive [slingshots] of the hoodlum boys--[sparrow] nests should not be disturbed." And surely, within a week, the city fathers passed a law prohibiting "wanton destructions" of English sparrows or their nests; fines of $10 or five days in jail for violators would prevail.

That was the situation at the end of March 1877. For eleven years, the birds would have free reign of the countryside--and the city streets. Remember, English sparrows are primarily city dwellers.

Then the Legislature called it quits. On April 27, 1888, an act was drawn for the governor and the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah authorizing "certain counties" to pay rewards for destroying wild animals and English sparrows. The birds had worn out their welcome.

Yes, the counties could pay bounty for hides or scalps of such predators and pests as lynxes, gray wolves and wild cats ($1); for coyotes (50 cents); for mountain lions and bear ($5); for jack rabbits and ground squirrels (2 cents); for weasels, muskrats, and mink (10 cents); gopher (5 cents); and English sparrows (1/4 cent). The sparrows, however, had to be turned in in batches of 100 bodies to collect.

Ornithologists today regard the English or house sparrow worse than a nuisance. The birds were imported to North America to control insect pests, but flourished to such an explosive extent as to become a pest to humans and a menace to native birds. It is thoroughly despised by many bird fanciers. And it has been written in natural histories that "The English sparrow among birds, like the rat among mammals, is cunning, destructive and filthy." And we thought the Mormon cricket was bad.

There is a happier footnote. In 1873, in an earlier birding experiment, banker Sharp Walker set fourteen quail loose on the West Jordan property of Samuel Bringhurst. The Deseret News remarked that the upland game birds were doing nicely on both sides of the Jordan River and Bringhurst and Walker urged citizens not to kill or capture any of the quail, lest it retard their increase.

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