This section is from the book "The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation", by George Abbey. Also available from Amazon: The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation.
The forester is the only cultivator that does not suffer severely from an over-abundance of sparrows, while the corn-farmer is most seriously affected, and in little less degree the owner of poultry by taking the food given to fowls, as also a goodly part of pigs' feeding-stuff, the gardener having no worse plague in devouring seedlings, pulling flowers to pieces, "browsing" on sprouting peas, beets, lettuces, spinach, etc., and after tasting green peas is a perfect gormand. Fruit-growers pronounce the sparrow a great offender, especially in winter and very early spring by destroying the buds of gooseberry and currant bushes, also those of plums and particularly damson trees, even "setting-on" the gooseberry flowers, squeezing them for the nectar, and causing the incipient fruit to drop. This gooseberry flower destruction is also attributed to the chaffinch, and appears a habit acquired within the last few years. The sparrow is also said to injure the blooms of plums, cherries, and sometimes of apples, pulling the flowers to pieces; even charged with taking a few ripe strawberries, cherries, gooseberries, cobnuts and filberts.
These depredations seem to occur in districts where fruit-growing has taken the place of ordinary agricultural crops, and is worst near buildings and high trees.
According to Mr. J. H. Gurney and Col. C. Russell's The House Sparrow, the food of an adult sparrow, based on the careful examination of nearly 1,000 sparrows at different times of the year, through fifteen years, is:
"Corn, 75 per cent.; seeds of weeds, 10 per cent; green peas, 4 per cent; beetles, 3 per cent; caterpillars, 2 per cent; insects which fly, 1 per cent; other things, 5 per cent. In young sparrows not more than 40 per cent, is corn, while about 40 per cent. consists of caterpillars, and 10 per cent. of small beetles." As the sparrow breeds three or four times a year, and as one pair may rear 20 young in a season, all of which are fed on food consisting of 50 per cent. of caterpillars and small beetles, 10 per cent. of other food not being accounted for, which we may assume to consist of aphides and other soft (undeterminable in crop of bird) insects, while 40 per cent. of the food is given as corn which is not attacked in growing crops until the latest broods are fledged, there is much to be said in favour of the sparrow as an insect-destroyer during the breeding season, though 40 per cent. of vegetable food represents destructive work on crops. This vegetable feeding-stuff must be obtained near the nesting places in farm-buildings, homesteads and adjuncts in rural, suburban, and urban districts, the birds being unmolested in towns, parks, and villages.
In these places brooding sparrows must do much good by destroying innumerable pests, such as aphides on fruit and other trees and bushes, loopers and other caterpillars, butterflies and their larvae, click beetles, pea and bean weevils, though, according to some observers, the sparrows eat ladybird larvae and beetles, as well as spiders, which are useful in destroying pests. Devastations of crops in gardens, fruit plantations, and vegetable grounds are limited to areas within a short distance of the harbouring and breeding places; therefore the occupiers are responsible for the havoc committed on their own or their neighbours' crops, and have the remedy in their own hands, inasmuch as from the fostering of the birds in towns and villages, about - hostelries, stables, railway sheds, warehouses, outbuildings, farmsteads, etc., they there increase out of all proportion to the natural insect-food supply of the broods, and at their best are simply aids in repressing insect ravages, in consuming weed seeds, and scavengering, not substitutes for preventive and repressive measures on the part of cultivators in respect of their crops, and of scrupulous cleanliness in regard of dwelling and other building environs.
That sparrows acquire new tastes in accordance with environment is not remarkable, but it is astonishing to regard them as existing solely for man's profit, and as such should discriminate between the friends and foes of his crops. This is the incubus of man, since he alone is responsible for upsetting the balance of nature.
House sparrows are somewhat difficult to scare, soon making themselves familiar with objects suspended over sprouting seeds, growing or ripening crops, such as the straw-stuffed, old clothed, ancient hatted man-like scarecrow once upon a time seen stood up in allotment ripening corn, also on sprouting seed-corn and " set" potatoes, sometimes with a rattle worked by a windmill-like contrivance, but not now much in vogue, for the simple reason that allotment holders very rarely grow corn for their own use and for pigs, so restricted are the crops through the injunctions on keeping swine near human dwellings, and the impracticability of growing corn in the environs of large villages, of towns, factories, railway stations, and warehouses on account of the sparrows reared and fostered in such places, including pheasant rearing and feeding grounds, also those of poultry-farmers, and from these places making descent on the ripening corn crops on allotments, small holdings, and fields. Even the smaller seeds and sprouting plants, with some growing-up plants must be protected from the sparrows and other sprouting seed-plucking up birds.
To prevent house sparrows, also chaffinches and green linnets, plucking up sprouting seeds, such as cabbage, radish, turnip, and other seeds and seedlings the very old Feathered Potato scare (Fig. 107, B) is of some service. It consists of a bent or long, straight, slender rod of hazel or other elastic wood, 4 to 6 ft. in length placed in the ground in a slanting direction, from the end of which a potato is suspended by a string (q), feathers of different colours being inserted in the potato after the fashion of a shuttlecock, and 9 to 12 in. from the ground. The wind keeps the scare more or less in motion, and by placing similar scares 6 to 8 ft. apart along a 4-ft. wide bed, when the seed or seedlings are usually sowed (s), otherwise (late in applying) they may be plucked up (t). Black thread, however, is the best scare for sparrows, adjusted as shown in the illustration.
Fig. 107. - Feathered Potato and Black Thread Bird Scares.
B, feathered potato scarecrow; p, bent stick; q, string affixed to stick and passed through potato so as to suspend it about 9 in. above ground; r, potato into which quill feathers thrust; s, normal seedling Brassicas; t, seedlings plucked up. The sticks and lines indicate protecting by means of black thread. C, black thread scare for rows: w, sticks; v, lines of black thread; w, undamaged pea plants. D, portion of unprotected row of peas: x, plants with tops eaten.