The house sparrows were first brought to New York city in 1862. They might have been introduced in consideration of the scientific usefulness of the experiment; but the importation was made solely in view of the benefit to result from their immense consumption of larvae.
I have long observed peculiarities in their acclimation which are hardly known at all, and which must have a scientific importance. The subject might also be worthy of general interest, so numerous and familiar have the sparrows become all over our country.
Walking on Fifth avenue, or in the parks of the city, during the breeding season, one's attention is repeatedly attracted by the pitiful shrill call of a sparrow fallen on the pavement upon its first attempt at flight, or by the stronger note of a mother sparrow, sharply bewailing the fate of a little one, killed by the fall, or dispatched alive by the cat.
Should we take and examine these little weaklings, we should find generally that they are at a period when they normally should have the strength for flight, and we should also find that they are almost always of a lightish tint, some with head white, others with streaks and spots of white on the tail or back, and occasionally one is found entirely white, with red eyes--a complete albino. It is an accepted fact that the city-sparrow is everywhere of a lighter color than that of the country. But here the greater lightness exists in so many cases, to such a degree, and particularly in female sparrows, that it should be discussed, at least in part, under the head of albinism.
That so many which lack the muscular strength in their wings should be so generally affected with albinism, is a significant fact to those interested in this phenomenon.
Many hold, with Darwin, that this extraordinary want of coloring matter, occasionally met with in all animals, is not to be regarded as an index denoting an unhealthful condition of the animal. That it is so often united in the young sparrow with physical inability, argues favorably for those who bold a different view.
In my observations, what has struck me as a most curious fact, and what I have found to be generally ignored, is that this wide-spread albinism and general weakness of our acclimated house-sparrow are not found among its progenitors.
Throughout several sojourns that I made in Europe. I searched for a token of the remarkable characteristics existing here, but I never succeeded in finding one in England, France, or in Germany, nor have I met an observer that has.
This albinism and weakness, existing simultaneously to such an extent in our young house-sparrows, are evidently the result of their acclimation.
The hypothesis that our now numerous sparrows, being descended from a few European birds, and that, probably, continual and close reproduction among individuals of the same stock, as in the case of our original few sparrows, has encouraged weakness in the race, can hardly serve as an explanation of this phenomenon, because the sparrow is so prolific that, after a few years, so many families had been formed that the relation between them became very distant.
The reason for the greater proportion of albinism found in the young is obvious; the young sparrows affected with albinism, lacking usually the physical strength to battle their way in life, meet death prematurely, and thus a very small proportion of the number is permitted to reach maturity, while those that do owe it to some favoring circumstance. Many are picked up and cared for by the public; and among those to whom these sparrows generally owe such prolongation of life are the policemen in our public parks, who often bring these little waifs to their homes, keeping some, and sending others out into the world, after caring for them until they have acquired the sufficient strength. However, almost all of these albino-sparrows are picked up by the cat, and immediately disposed of to the feline's physical benefit. They form such a prominent diet among the cats near Washington Park, where I live, that, upon the removal of some of our neighbors to the upper part of the city, it was noticed that their cat became dissatisfied and lean, as sparrow-meat is not to be found so extensively there, but it finally became resigned, finding it possible to procure about three sparrows daily.
And here attention should be called to the method employed by our cats to catch not only the weak, but fine, healthy sparrows as well; it ought perhaps to be looked upon as a mark of intellectual improvement, for originally their attempts consisted chiefly in a very unsuccessful giving chase to the flying bird, whereas the cats of to-day are skilled in a hundred adroit devices. It has often been a source of enjoyment to watch their well-laid schemes and delicate maneuverings.
What wonder then, with such dainty fare at his disposal, that the cat is often found to have become indifferent to rats, and even to mice?
There are several notable changes, no more desirable than the foregoing, which have been caused by the introduction of the house-sparrow. The only positive benefit which occurs to me is that the measuring worm, which formerly infested all our vegetation, is now very nearly extinct through the instrumentality of the sparrows. A pair of these, during the breeding-season, destroys four thousand larvae weekly.
In some places, complaints are made that their untidy nests mar the appearance of trees and walls.
The amount of havoc in our wheatfields created yearly by them is enormous. Their forwardness and activity have driven all other birds from where they have settled, so that the hairy caterpillars, which sparrows do not eat and which used to be extensively consumed by other birds, are now greatly on the increase, probably the only creatures, at present, enjoying the domestication of the sparrow in this country.... I have also to remark that the sparrows here betray much less pugnacity than in Europe.--E.M., M.D.
It is stated in the Chemical Review that recent analyses of the water from the Holy Well at Mecca, which is so eagerly drunk by pilgrims, show this water to be sewage, about ten times stronger than average London sewage.