A bird once considered to be helpful pest control, the invasive English Sparrow made it on a legislative “hit list” in the 1800s.
Most Utahns have heard the tale of how in 1848 a flock of California gulls swooped down and gorged themselves on a horde of crickets chewing their way through the Mormon pioneers’ harvest. Fewer people are familiar with the saga of the English sparrow. First introduced to Utah to control the local population of fruit-destroying insects, the sparrow was later targeted for wholesale destruction by a law passed in 1888.
English sparrows came to the Utah Territory in 1877 as part of a plan to kill the coddling moth and other bugs who threatened the Salt Lake Valley’s fruit harvest. Community-minded businessmen bought and released the first 180 sparrows into the valley with the idea that they would breed quickly. The Salt Lake Tribune derisively reported that the sparrows reproduced faster than even the Mormons and would quickly take care of the moth problem, if people just left them alone.
Unfortunately for the English sparrow, Utahns’ attitudes quickly shifted from preservation to destruction. By the 1880s Salt Lake’s newspapers were calling the bird a nuisance worthy of annihilation. People discovered that sparrows can be noisy, destructive, and not easily intimidated. With this in mind, the territorial legislature passed a law telling counties they could pay bounties on dead sparrows as well as other so-called pests including coyotes, jack rabbits, bears, and gophers.
The story of the English sparrow highlights the often unintended consequences of human intervention in nature What Utahn’s first believed would be an easy solution to a complex agricultural problem, turned out not to be a solution at all. Instead of wiping out Utah’s fruit-destroying bugs, sparrows eventually overran the region. For better or worse, the English sparrow is here to stay.
Image: Drawng by Brent Shaw Foster. Found in Beverly Beeton's "The English Sparrow Immigrates to Utah", Beehive History 2, pg. 10. 1976. Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.
See news stories about the saga of the English sparrow in Utah in the following editions of the Salt Lake Tribune: March 20, 1877; August 29, 1882; April 3. 1883; July 15, 1883; November 22, 1884, April 26, 1885; and April 11, 1886. Also see the January 25, 1888 edition of the Deseret News. More on the English sparrow in Utah can be found in Hal Schindler’s article, originally published in the June 20, 1993 issue of the Salt Lake Tribune, which can now be found on the Utah History To Go website