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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


From Encyclopedia Dubuque
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ENGLISH SPARROW. The English sparrow was introduced into the United States at Brooklyn, New York, in the years 1851 and 1852. The trees in parks were at that time infested with a canker-worm, which caused them great injury, and to rid the trees of these worms was the mission of the bird. (1)

Sparrows are now usually regarded as a pest. Some scientists considered them the number one enemy of bluebirds and purple martins. Unlike starlings, they are capable of entering the 1.5" round hole of a nestbox. English or House sparrows have been observed threatening and attacking 70 species of birds that have come into their nesting territory. One study showed they reduced reproductive output of a barn swallow colony in MD by 44.7% over a four year period. (Weisheit and Creighton, 1989). They may also steal nesting material, slowing down breeding. Some bluebirders refer to them as "rats with wings", but they attack and kill adult bluebirds sometimes trapping and decapitating them in the nestbox and building their own nest on top of their victim's corpse. They destroy eggs and young. At a minimum, they often harass native birds (especially more timid species like chickadees) into abandoning nestboxes. (2)

Attempts to control house sparrows include the trapping, poisoning, or shooting of adults; the destruction of their nests and eggs; or less directly, blocking nest holes and scaring off sparrows with noise, glue, or porcupine wire. However, the house sparrow can be beneficial to humans as well, especially by eating insect pests, and attempts at the large-scale control of the house sparrow have failed. (3)

In 1876 the loss of insect-eating songbirds was seen as removing one protection for fruit and shade trees. Based upon their success in the eastern part of the country, English sparrows were thought to be a remedy. Mr. D. Wagner proposed in April 1876 to purchase fifty of the birds to be shipped to Dubuque and then turned loose. The Dubuque Herald commented that the idea was a "commendable effort." (4)

The sparrows were actually ordered in 1878. The Dubuque Herald remarked that they "will be set free in the public parks and also be permitted the freedom of the city as soon as the increasingly warm weather warrants a sufficiency of spiders...Thanks to Bird Wagner, Druggist Ruete and others. (5)

The sparrows were expected to arrive on March 6, 1878 and plans were immediately announced to set them free in WASHINGTON PARK on March 7th. (6)

Concern about the wintering of the sparrows in Dubuque led the city to have bird boxes constructed for the birds in October, 1878. (7) Theodore RUETE and H. H. Smyth agreed to feed the birds in Washington Park. (8)



1. "The English Sparrow," Online: http://www.birdnature.com/dec1897/sparrow.html

2. "Managing House Sparrows," Online: http://www.sialis.org/hosp.htm

3. "House Sparrow," Wikipedia. Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_sparrow

4. "More Good Birds Wanted," Dubuque Herald, April 14, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760414&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

5. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, March 5, 1878, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18780305&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

6. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, March 7, 1878, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18780307&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

7. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, November 7, 1878, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18781109&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

8. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, November 9, 1878, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18781109&printsec=frontpage&hl=en