A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Without question the most deplorable event in the history of American ornithology was the introduction of the English Sparrow.
-W.L. Dawson, The Birds of Ohio, 1903
They snuck in when the arena opened; loading dock doors beckoned the Sparrow, maybe a pair now and then, not some mad rush of starlings swooping along the river, so many that they look like the tattered flag of a country that’s forsworn color. The House Sparrow–Old World import, the first Brooklyn birds captured, purchased, transported in cages–we ignored till they overran natives, ravaged crops, windowsills, and eventually, hockey arenas.
Our guide, Anthony, has become a sparrow expert of sorts; though not his primary mission, he’s been charged to rid the arena of its unwanted guests, over two hundred now he guesses. He’s learned much in his quest: the house sparrow’s feeding habits, breeding habits, life span—but all of this comes to naught when he tries to kill them. What he learns is what’s been learned. The House Sparrow adapts, takes what it needs from what we leave behind: popcorn, peanuts, chips, beer pooled in the hollows of the arena floors. Poor Anthony has been tasked with eliminating the feathered rat–had he read him no doubt he’d agree with Dodson:
The English Sparrow must go. The bird has wrought a great deal of evil to our country chiefly. We imported the English Sparrow— that was not Nature’s fault. We should rectify our error, drive out the English Sparrow.
Anthony’s considered many means of driving out the wily birds that fly so blithely through the Consol sky. He’s got a list of failures. Antifreeze dough balls: the birds were too cunning and popcorn too plenty. Cats–a cat’s too smart to chase birds high into girders, and if the odd dumb cats did, who would get them down? The falconer decided one falcon couldn’t kill enough sparrows to scare the survivors away. Falcons hone one target to scare the rest into fleeing or submitting. Falcons are assassins, not mass murderers.
The English Sparrow’s lifespan–Anthony doesn’t like to call them House Sparrows; he likes thinking of them as invading from England like the Beatles—is twelve months in the wild, twenty-four in captivity, but a hockey arena is the best of both worlds. Sparrows are free to fly, feed, breed, live in a temperate environment; no predators, except Anthony, and he admits he’s not been very predatory to date.
I offer this advice: Anthony, this is going be harder than you think. As one not bent on killing wrote, “house sparrows can live for several years if their needs are met.” Some say they can live for two, four, maybe thirteen years. Do the math Anthony. Read and weep: “a few House Sparrows can multiply into thousands in a few years because they regularly raise three and sometimes as many as five broods per year, each brood averaging five or six birds.” You might reduce their food supply by meticulously cleaning after every event, but your staff thinks it’s doing that now; are you going to dun their wages for popcorn left in the aisles? Will they have to race sparrows to see who gets the peanuts first? You can’t poison the popcorn; there’s problems of liability and lawsuits if people start dying faster than sparrows.
You could blast disco at night with strobe lights, like PSY OPS went after Noriega, but who knows what freaks out a sparrow? Say no to flying trapeze performers catching birds with dip nets. Inefficient, and high liability if they insist on doing it without nets. Maybe you could drive them out if all 800 TV monitors show Real Housewives of New Jersey marathons, but sparrows might cultivate a certain weirdness and enjoy, especially, shows about stupid humans. Anthony, just count your blessings: I give you this Jubilate:
For sparrows are not pigeons,
For sparrows do not steal shiny baubles,
For sparrows bear no omens of death,
For sparrows do not eat dead flesh,
For sparrows are not loud as peacocks,
For sparrows do not excrete guano,
For Sparrow is not the nickname of a rival team,
For all of this, Anthony, you might rejoice.
Copyright © 2020 by Rick Campbell. Included in Vox Populi by permission of the author and Blue Horse Press.