The Sparrow Question: Social and Scientific Accord in Britain, 1850–1900
Journal of the History of Biology
The Sparrow Question: Social and Scientific Accord in Britain, 1850-1900
MATTHEW HOLMES 0
0 Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science, School of Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science University of Leeds Leeds LS2 9JT UK
During the latter-half of the nineteenth century, the utility of the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) to humankind was a contentious topic. In Britain, numerous actors from various backgrounds including natural history, acclimatisation, agriculture and economic ornithology converged on the bird, as contemporaries sought to calculate its economic cost and benefit to growers. Periodicals and newspapers provided an accessible and anonymous means of expression, through which the debate raged for over 50 years. By the end of the century, sparrows had been cast as detrimental to agriculture. Yet consensus was not achieved through new scientific methods, instruments, or changes in practice. This study instead argues that the rise and fall of scientific disciplines and movements paved the way for consensus on ''the sparrow question.'' The decline of natural history and acclimatisation stifled a raging debate, while the rising science of economic ornithology sought to align itself with agricultural interests: the latter overwhelmingly hostile to sparrows.
Acclimatisation; Agriculture; Economic ornithology; Natural history; Species history
In an 1892 letter to The Times, Earl Cathcart, President of the Royal
Agricultural Society, announced the launch of a new field of scientific
inquiry in Britain. ‘‘Economic ornithology’’ would examine the
economic impact of birds on agriculture, a topic neglected by ‘‘recognized
text-books on ornithology’’ which only provided readers with ‘‘vague
and agriculturally useless statements’’ (Cathcart, 1892). To illustrate
why such a science was required, Cathcart pointed to the daily influx of
letters and notices on birds and agriculture which appeared in
newspapers like The Times. One letter which caught his attention was an
account of the activities of the Epping Sparrow Club, which claimed to
have exterminated some six thousand sparrows. Without the missing
science of economic ornithology, according to Cathcart, there appeared
to be no way of telling whether or not the sparrows had been wrongfully
killed under the presumption that they destroyed crops.
The house sparrow (Passer domesticus) is a ubiquitous, robust and
globally adaptable bird, which has provoked feelings ranging from
delight to loathing (Todd, 2012, pp. 8–9). In nineteenth-century Britain,
attitudes towards the sparrow revolved around the question of whether
the species was beneficial or detrimental to grower’s livelihoods. For
over fifty years, interested parties scrutinised the diet and behaviour of
these seemingly inoffensive birds. Did sparrows consume harmful
insects, thereby providing a service to agriculturalists and
horticulturalists? Or did the birds primarily subsist on farmers’ crops? Applicability
to real-world problems acted as a litmus test for nineteenth-century
science. Bellon (2011, p. 395) describes how wild speculation was
abhorrent in an age where scientific praise was laden upon
‘‘painstaking’’, ‘‘humble’’ and ‘‘patient’’ observers, rather than theoreticians. Yet
consensus on practical questions was not always reached through
irrefutable experiment or careful observation. I argue that changing
attitudes towards the sparrow are exemplary of wider changes in the
Victorian life sciences.
For many in the humanities, animals act as barometers of human
society. Anthropologists such as Roy Willis (1974, p. 7) have long stated
that our attitudes towards species are revelatory of societal groups and
their self-conception. The study of human-animal relationships has gone
from strength to strength in recent years, in no small part due to the rise
of environmental history. In this discipline and related fields, an animal,
or species, has often taken centre stage as an object of historical study.1
Exploring human attitudes towards an organism uncovers
contemporary social, cultural and economic interests: a methodology similar to
leading environmental historian John McNeill’s (2003, pp. 7–9) trinity
of material, political and socio-cultural approaches to history. A
species-based history consists of two idealised outcomes: an account of
both historical attitudes towards the natural world and how its denizens
have in turn shaped human society.
For environmental historians, linking contemporary changes in
science and society to human attitudes towards the natural world has
become second nature. This approach elucidates how different social
1 Some recent examples from the journal Environmental History include Specht
(2016) on Texas Longhorn cattle, Lee Nelson (2016) on ‘‘teredo’’ (marine wood-boring
organisms) and Seeley and Skabelund (2015) on tigers in Korea.
worlds and scientific disciplines have interacted with individual species.2
I therefore examine a species which encapsulates both controversy and
rapport—the British house sparrow (Passer domesticus)—in the period
from 1850 to 1900. During this time, arguments over whether birds
could be harnessed as a form of biological control to suppress insect
pests raged in British periodicals and newspapers. Across much of this
fifty-year span, sparrows were highly contentious birds, failing to
produce any form of consensus. Yet by the end of the century, the
argument that sparrows were detrimental to agriculture had largely won out,
a trend cemented by the outbreak of the First World War.
In this paper, I uncover the history of the sparrow in late
nineteenthcentury Britain and its place in four social worlds; those of the
agriculturalist, natural historian, acclimatiser and economic ornithologist. I
then discuss how the accessibility of natural history fuelled the sparrow
debate, as diverse opinions and observations on the utility of the birds
appeared in newspapers and periodicals. A growing consensus on
sparrows’ utility—or lack thereof—eventually emerged in tandem with
the rise of economic ornithology and the decline of natural history and
the acclimatisation movement. I therefore argue that the changing
nature of the late nineteenth-century life sciences, rather than new
discoveries or theories, allowed consensus to be reached on the sparrow
In agricultural circles, sparrows had been considered pests, or vermin,
since the eighteenth century. Burgeoning numbers of the birds on
agricultural land were perceived to threaten fields of ripening corn, a
resulting national paranoia surrounding sparrows persisting into the
late nineteenth century (Lovegrove, 2007, p. 176).3 Arable farmers and
horticulturalists regularly trapped, poisoned or shot sparrows on their
land or property. Local meetings of agricultural societies and so-called
‘‘sparrow clubs’’ uniformly condemned sparrows’ consumption of
crops. Once labelled as ‘‘vermin,’’ non-productive species were freely
2 I draw upon Star and Griesmer’s (1989) use of the term ‘‘social worlds’’ to denote a
group or network of people defined by shared interests, or a common vision. These
interests could be economic—as in the case of agriculturalists—or scientific. A degree of
heterogeneity can exist within social worlds. Some social worlds may achieve
homogeneity by throwing up barriers to entry.
3 ‘‘Corn’’ was a general term for cereal crops. In England, it was most often used to
refer to wheat.
persecuted in the fields of Victorian Britain (Lovegrove, 2007; Thomas,
1983). Traditional attitudes to wildlife management were neatly
summed up by Charles Newman (1861), a British farmer who wrote to the
Nottinghamshire Guardian newspaper in protest at proposed legislation
for the protection of birds brought before the French senate:
No doubt many persons are opposed to their [sparrows’]
destruction, considering that this feathered race were created for some wise
purpose. Such was undoubtedly the case in the original order. But
the Great Creator made man to rule over the fowls of the air and
the beasts of the field, leaving it to his judgment to destroy such
that were found more destructive than beneficial.
As a ‘‘practical farmer,’’ Newman considered the conservation of
sparrows—or as he termed them, ‘‘flying mice’’—unthinkable. Contrary
to narratives of increasingly enlightened attitudes towards the natural
world, many rural workers still perceived animals as subject to their
divinely-ordained control. Those creatures that interfered in humans’
utilitarian activities could be eliminated without undue pangs of
conscience. Sparrows were certainly perceived as interfering. An account of
the annual meeting of the Chester Farmers’ Club described the
‘‘ravages’’ of sparrows subsequent to the birds ‘‘invading the farmyard.’’
(The farmers and the sparrows, 1889).4 Anthropomorphising sparrows
as an attacking or invasive force reflected the economic losses incurred
by growers. Sparrows were estimated by some attendees as destroying
one-tenth of growers’ crops, while one farmer incurred costs of one
pound, seventeen shillings and nine pence (a significant sum) for the
destruction of 1,835 birds of unspecified species (The farmers and the
Newman’s sparrow phobia possessed powerful social and
institutional backing. Agricultural chambers, clubs and societies were
regularly roused in passionate tirade against sparrows. A correspondent
(who described themselves as an ‘‘observer’’) wrote to The Essex
Standard reporting their despair that an 1867 meeting of the Coggeshall
and United Parishes Agricultural Society had supported the systematic
destruction of sparrows. A young John Bright, in the employ of a Mr.
Catchpool, was praised by society members for destroying 650 sparrows
and 195 rats (Farmers and sparrows, 1867) In 1896 a campaign against
sparrows was launched by Yorkshire farmers, who denounced the bird
as a ‘‘complete pest,’’ with some members of the West Riding Chamber
4 Many of the newspaper correspondents who participated in the sparrow debate
remained anonymous. When this occurs, I give the title of the letter or article.
of Agriculture claiming to verge on bankruptcy: a consequence of the
bird’s deprecations (Yorkshire farmers and sparrows, 1896). Numerous
letters and opinion pieces in the agricultural and horticultural columns
of British newspapers backed the actions of farmers’ organisations. A
reader of the Oxford Journal wrote to state that while they agreed with
an earlier correspondent that certain birds should be preserved (in
moderation) by horticulturalists, sparrows damaged farmers’ crops and
failed to keep down caterpillar numbers (The destruction of sparrows,
1862). In nineteenth-century Britain, attitudes towards species often
depended on their perceived utility. The impression given by the rhetoric
and actions of farmers’ groups was that sparrows were not only useless,
but downright destructive.
Despite legislation enacted to protect rare birds and outlaw the
laying of poisoned grain, the government stood shoulder to shoulder
with organisations such as the West Riding Chamber of Agriculture on
the sparrow question. Published correspondence from the Secretary of
the Board of Agriculture around 1897—following communication with
the Home Office—confirmed that sparrows did not fall under the 1880
Wild Birds Protection Act. Furthermore, the Secretary announced that
the balance of opinion on sparrows’ agricultural utility, a ‘‘subject of
controversy,’’ weighed against the birds (Farmers and sparrows: 1897).
It would be overly-simplistic to cast all nineteenth-century farmers as
wholly against the preservation of sparrows. When considering the
‘‘sparrow question,’’ evidence for growers’ hostility is certainly found in
the mass extermination of birds across the British Isles. Yet not all
agriculturalists were in favour of control. The Royal Agricultural
Society of England and Wales published an 1862 pamphlet intended for
European agricultural societies and schools, which stated that
insectivorous birds consumed as much animal as vegetable matter, acting as
‘‘faithful protectors’’ of ‘‘cultivation in general’’ (De Tschudi, 1862, p.
246). The Society’s journal commented that the folly of persecuting
birds was demonstrated by the anti-sparrow campaign of Frederick the
Great of Prussia, which resulted in fruit trees stripped of leaves by a
burgeoning caterpillar population (De Tschudi, 1862, p. 239).5 A survey
of the Society’s publications from 1840 to 1849 reveals that only fifteen
and a half percent of submitted articles came from ‘‘scientific
professions,’’ making its journal fairly representative of agriculturalists’ views
(Wilmot, 1990, pp. 18–19). Some years later, farmer Nunn (1897) wrote
to The Times to favourably compare the good deeds of sparrows with
the bad. For Nunn, the ‘‘goodness’’ of the birds was found in their
5 On the history of the house sparrow in Germany, see Seitz (2007).
consumption of troublesome insects.
Hostility towards sparrows did not only stem from within the
farming community. Agriculturalists readily exchanged information
and ideas beyond their social world. This interaction could take
numerous forms; for instance, the correspondence exchanged between
Charles Darwin and potato-grower James Torbitt during the 1870s on
the distribution of blight-resistant potatoes to Irish growers (Dearce,
2008). Other actors stood more overtly on the boundary between social
worlds. Self-taught entomologist Eleanor Ormerod came from a
wealthy family, growing up on a large estate (Wallace, 1904). Following the
demise of her autocratic father, she published numerous reports and
papers on economic ornithology and later became a consultant to the
Royal Agricultural Society of England in 1882 (Gates, 1998, p. 88).
Ormerod weighed in on the sparrow controversy with an 1892
co-authored paper in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, which
drew upon the conclusions of early economic ornithologists to
emphasise the damaging impact of sparrows on agriculture (Ormerod
and Tegetmeier, 1897–1898).
By the close of the nineteenth century, growers had generally not
warmed to the concept of sparrows as a form of biological control.
Characterising this community as uniformly in favour of persecuting
sparrows would miss important exceptions. Yet there is no avoiding the
conclusion that much of the opposition to sparrow conservation
featured agriculturalists, or at least made reference to the economic
wellbeing and productivity of their community.
For many Victorians, scientific and social life orientated itself around
natural history. Definitions of what practices constituted natural history
were loose, as were those practitioners who might be described as
natural historians. Rehbock (1983, pp. 6–7) describes an underlying tension
within nineteenth-century natural history, as ‘‘philosophical’’ theorists
sought to distance themselves from mere collectors and observers. Yet
even ‘‘philosophical natural history’’ lacked a firm definition: referring
to an attitude toward natural history characterised by several different
features (Rehbock, 1983, p. 7). Unfazed by such ambiguity, natural
history enthusiasts infamously lurched between the latest collecting
fads. Moving from ferns to aquariums, devotees stripped specimens
from the countryside in alarming numbers (Allen, 1996, pp. 404–405).
Inexpensive guides poured off the presses, making collecting popular, if
not ubiquitous (Dunlap, 1999, p. 28). Nineteenth-century naturalists of
all stripes were driven by an overarching sense of purpose, or
participation in a grand intellectual endeavour. Acquiring and systematising
knowledge gleaned from study of the natural world was associated with
moral, religious and social wellbeing.
All societies have anthropomorphised aspects of their environment,
including animals. Yet Victorian authors and naturalists took this
tendency to new heights. Birds had long been considered a worthy
object of study based on their suitable moral traits, including reassuring
family relationships (Thomas, 1983, p. 63). Human characteristics or
object lessons were readily attached to sparrows. In 1885 one newspaper
declared that sparrow enthusiasts were those benevolent persons who
read literature from the Animals Friend Society and believed sparrows
to be ‘‘the feathered friend of man’’ (Sparrows and the crops, 1885). An
article in the Rural World magazine invoked sympathetic metaphors in
its natural historical account of the house sparrow. Its author compared
the reckless audacity and impudence of the bird to the average British
boy (The ubiquitous sparrow, 1889). Unemployed rural labourers who
killed birds such as sparrows, linnets and finches were said to deploy
instruments of ‘‘revenge and malignity’’ in their work, namely poisons
such as arsenic, strychnine and phosphorous (Destruction of small
birds, 1862). While popular, some consider the moral authority drawn
from natural history to have proved detrimental to the field’s survival.
In the early years of the twentieth century, an idealised form of natural
history found an audience among the expanding middle class, who
cultured their rustic vision in expanding suburbs (Broks, 1996, pp. 79–
80). The introduction of ‘‘nature study’’ to British classrooms also led to
the association of natural history with schools and juvenilia (Allen,
1998, p. 367).6
By the nineteenth century, nature was understood as part of a created
order, existing in a form of equilibrium, which could be upset by rash
human action. One newspaper report strongly recommended
maintaining a balance between the ‘‘feathered tribe’’ and agriculture (The
sparrow club, 1855). A decade later, Donald George Forbes
MacDonald (1865), known for his writing on farming and estate
management, referred to sparrow eradication as interference in the
‘‘Divine organisation of nature.’’ Religious and moral connotations
were drawn when this balance was upset through capriciousness or
6 Nyhart (1996) provides a critical take on histories of biology which emphasise the
decline of natural history and rise of ‘‘modern’’ biology.
carelessness. A letter to The Quarterly Journal of Agriculture told the
tale of a horticulturalist who had exterminated sparrows in his fruit
orchard with the use of poisoned wheat, only to suffer ‘‘myriads of
caterpillars, green and black-marked ugly things,’’ which stripped whole
bushes of their leaves. To add to the ‘‘poetical justice’’ suffered by the
thoughtless grower, birds that did not eat the poisoned wheat, including
chaffinches and thrushes, also ‘‘despoiled the trees of their fruit’’
(Destruction of sparrows, 1841).
By the late nineteenth century, ideas of ‘‘living communities,’’ or
many of the qualities of what is now termed ecology, were found in
German universities, represented by such figures as Ernst Haeckel and
Karl August Mo¨ bius (Nyhart, 2009, p. 2). Yet ideas of a natural
balance, or ‘‘economy’’ within nature, far predated their scientific
codification, as demonstrated by Worster (1985). In natural history, the
balance of nature was a vague, albeit popular, understanding of plant
and animal populations. Allen (1998, p. 367) described British ecology
as ‘‘another light that failed,’’ as ecologists adopted a physiological
approach which pushed the discipline out of the reach of naturalists by
the turn of the century (Allen, 1998, p. 367). Instead, British naturalists
and rural workers were informed by tacit knowledge, gleaned from
wildlife management and observation in gardens, fields and cities.
Occasionally, a combination of moral sentiment, religious leanings and
sense of balance in nature led some to declare sparrows an unmitigated
blessing to agriculturalists, worthy of conservation and encouragement
from both growers and the political establishment (Sparrows and the
Natural history represented a shared culture or civic project (Barber,
1980; Finnegan, 2005). Yet not all those who drew upon natural history
were convinced by the agricultural utility of sparrows. Newman, who
angrily affirmed the dominion of agriculturalists over wild species, was
no stranger to natural history. In his 1861 tirade against sparrow
conservation, Newman drew upon the first volume of English naturalist
Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth (originally published in 1774) to
demonstrate that crop-eating caterpillars were destroyed by rain,
making the role of sparrows in their control of no significance
(Newman, 1861; Goldsmith, 1816, pp. 61–62). Industrialist and ornithologist
Henry Seebohm’s A History of British Birds (1883) contained testimony
demonstrating that farmers in the north of England had ceased growing
corn due to the inroads of sparrows (The increase and destructiveness of
sparrows, 1884). A study on sparrows’ diet carried out by a Lieut.
Russell (1883) appeared in the journal of the Essex Field Club and
reported similar findings. Russell (1883, p. 22) examined the stomachs
of thousands of sparrows at different times of the year, arriving at the
conclusion that ninety-five percent of the birds’ diet consisted of corn.
Just as it would be a mistake to cast nineteenth-century
agriculturalists in a monolithic block, the same lesson applies to natural
historians. Its practitioners only represented a coherent community in the
sense that many engaged in observation and collection, while attaching
great spiritual and social significance to their findings. This did not
always imply agreement. Meaningful attempts were made to add greater
value to private observations, through detailed record-keeping or sheer
quantities of information gathered. An 1868 article in the Glasgow
Herald attempted to quantify the volume of cockchafers—a type of
beetle—devoured by sparrows. Its author counted empty wing cases
found below a sparrow nest, ultimately estimating that a single pair of
sparrows could devour fourteen thousand beetles to feed their young
(Another plea for sparrows, 1868). Almost three decades later, a
Cumberland parson recited the results of his ‘‘careful observation’’ of
sparrows in his vicarage garden over a period of seventeen years (The
poor sparrows, 1895). Yet results were often ambiguous or perceived as
tainted by personal biases. Hence an 1884 newspaper report on
sparrows remarked that to resolve the question of the birds’ utility, old
prejudices would have to be laid aside and ‘‘more systematic
observations,’’ including dissections, carried out (The increase and
destructiveness of sparrows, 1884).
Information on the utility of sparrows in agriculture was not confined to
British shores. From the mid-nineteenth century, the movement of avian
species around the globe was encouraged by various acclimatisation
societies, which sought to improve national diet and economic
productivity through the introduction of plants and animals (Barber, 1980,
pp. 147–149; Anderson, 1992, p. 135). These societies claimed interested
naturalists and landowners among their members, who encouraged the
import of exotic species. In 1865 the Acclimatisation Society of Great
Britain merged with the Ornithological Society of London, overseeing
the introduction of numerous game birds, from Japanese pheasants to
California quails (Lever, 1992, p. 82). Acclimatisation societies were
also founded abroad, encouraged and assisted by their European
counterparts, with the aim of improving the biotic quality and content
of new lands. Upon their arrival in newly-conquered territory,
European colonisers often perceived the fauna and flora of their new
surroundings to be deficient, even hostile. By 1900, in excess of fifty
acclimatisation societies had formed, mostly in European colonies.
Species were imported for a variety of reasons, ranging from nostalgia
to scientific curiosity (Lever, 1992, pp. 193–194; Osborne, 2000, p. 136).
English sparrows found themselves transported to the United States,
Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Many of the societies unloaded
sparrows to fulfil a sense of nostalgia or aesthetic pleasure, with little
evidence of scientific orientation (Lever, 1992, p. 190). In the wider
context, acclimatisation movements fell outside the remit of European
scientific and administrative elites, their ‘‘amateur’’ leanings and
repeated failures perhaps accounting for their ephemeral nature (Osborne,
2000, p. 151).
Initial success in the acclimatisation of the sparrow in Australia was
repeatedly drawn upon by both sides of the debate, even as the
reputation of the bird on that continent rapidly waned following its initial
success in controlling insect pests. Once established on the Australian
continent, acclimatisation societies moved to rejuvenate their local
biota, in the process introducing foxes, rabbits and the prickly pear,
with unfortunate consequences for growers (Osborne, 2000, p. 141).
These societies met with popular apathy or hostility, as their members
were seen to act in the interests of privileged elites, a belief confirmed by
societies’ introductions of British songbirds and ‘‘animals of the chase’’
(Lever, 1992, p. 100). Yet insectivorous birds such as sparrows could
potentially be deployed in defence of settler agriculture, regardless of
controversy over their utility in their home countries. Resulting
increases in agricultural or horticultural yields would act as a credit to
acclimatisation societies. In 1863 the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria
(based in Melbourne) incubated imported house sparrow eggs, before
introducing the fledglings to Murrurundi in 1865 (Lever, 1992, p. 104).
British newspaper correspondents began citing the ongoing experiment
of English sparrows in Australia from the 1860s. An observer wrote to
the editor of The Essex Standard in 1867 to remark that Australians and
New Zealanders had gone to great lengths to import house sparrows, so
convinced they were of the utility of sparrows ‘‘to the farmer, gardener,
and seed grower, by the destruction of insects [sic].’’ In stark contrast, he
noted that British growers sought to destroy the birds at every turn
(Farmers and sparrows, 1867).
Reflecting this dichotomy, an Australian with interests in
acclimatisation remarked that the prospering of introduced sparrows in his country
since 1862 had provoked the ‘‘same kind of controversy that has long
raged in other countries’’ (The troubles of our friends in Australia, 1868).
With sparrows turning upon fruit gardens, the correspondent was asked
by a ‘‘society’’ to gather ‘‘authentic information, as to the balance of his
[the sparrow’s] merits and demerits.’’ His mention of a society was
presumably a reference to an Australian acclimatisation society. Both the
Australian acclimatiser and the British newspaper that carried his report
favoured the merits of sparrows. Yet the Australian love for the sparrow
proved a short-lived affair, a fact quickly seized upon by detractors of
sparrows’ utility. The same correspondent stated that Australian settlers
had introduced sparrows to combat homesickness, but would soon need
their own sparrow clubs in Victoria to control the birds (The troubles of
our friends in Australia, 1868). A decade later The Derby Mercury charted
the rapid reversal of Australian opinion:
For ten or fifteen years, perhaps, the Australian gardeners and
farmers and the sparrows got on exceedingly well together. The busy
little birds faithfully performed all that was expected of them, and the
land was well nigh rid of grub and caterpillar. Presently, however,
there gradually arose a feeling of uneasiness as to the increase and
multiplication of the imported blessing (A plague of sparrows, 1878).
Sparrows turned upon crops in the absence of insects. Soon enough,
poison, sparrow shooting clubs and even the domestic cat were
deployed as ‘‘The poor bird’s adopted country begrudges him even the
nest he dwells in’’ (A plague of sparrows, 1878). By the end of the
nineteenth century, persecution of Australian sparrows had not
subsided. The sparrow question engaged Britons across the globe. A
Captain Becher (1885, p. 259), stationed in Karachi, thought it worth
writing to The Zoologist—a monthly natural history periodical—to
report that local sparrows helpfully devoured swarming red ants.
An almost identical situation to that encountered in Australia
emerged in North America, resulting in the so-called ‘‘Sparrow Wars’’
of the 1870s. American dislike of sparrows was picked up by The Times,
which related the remarkable expansion of the sparrow population in
New York from only a few breeding pairs, first introduced to Union
Square Park in 1866. In one year, the birds had spread forty miles in
every direction and numbered over six hundred, leading an American
newspaper to ask whether worm or bird represented ‘‘the greatest evil’’
(The English sparrow, 1868).7 An 1889 Times article was dismissive of
7 Attracted to ‘‘kernels of grain in empty boxcars,’’ sparrows expanded across the
United States via the rail network (Coates, 2006, p. 28).
American claims of sparrows destroying grain, defiling buildings, failing
to eat insects and harming native birds, noting that a large blizzard in
1888 had reduced sparrow numbers to the benefit of grubs and
caterpillars (The sparrow in the United States, 1889). Elsewhere in North
America, the birds were not so maligned. An English dairy school wrote
to The York Herald in 1884, citing the favourable reception and
practical utility granted to insectivorous birds by the Ontario Agricultural
Commission. Yet the evidence presented by the Canadian Commission
was deemed insufficient by the school. Both ‘‘scientific observers’’ and
agriculturalists confirmed the grievous destruction of ripened corn by
‘‘legions of sparrows’’ in the English countryside, including Cheshire,
Lincolnshire and Yorkshire (Sparrows and corn, 1884). Exotic accounts
of acclimatisation and insect control in the imperial context did not
necessarily overrule the observations and practical knowledge of local
naturalists and growers.
Acclimatisation, agriculture and natural history often acted as allied
movements. Like natural history, acclimatisation represented a
community with a broad social and economic remit, which counted
numerous naturalists among its ranks. A form of improvement project,
acclimatisers’ practitioners and their international networks of plant
and animal exchange bore a strong resemblance to those of natural
history. Anderson (1992, p. 147) notes that the British acclimatisation
movement relied upon ‘‘gentlemen plant and animal breeders [who]
supported agricultural experimentation.’’ Naturalists such as Owen and
Buckland were active supporters and participants in the acclimatisation
movement. Others, including Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel
Wallace, also endorsed acclimatisation projects and drew upon the findings
of acclimatisers for their own research (Anderson, 1992, pp. 150–151).
Despite its promise, the acclimatisation movement faltered by the end of
the century, while the damaging presence of sparrows in new lands only
added more ammunition to their detractors (Anderson, 1992, p. 152;
Osborne, 2000, p. 146).
In 1892 the term ‘‘economic ornithology’’ appeared in a letter to The
Times written by Earl Cathcart, then-president of the Royal
Agricultural Society. Cathcart (1892) defined economic ornithology as ‘‘the
study of the inter-relation of birds and agriculture,’’ stating that the
promising field lay open for investigation by English agricultural
scientists. A call for agricultural scientists to study birds was indicative of
both Cathcart’s agrarian interests and the ongoing sparrow debates.
Cathcart‘s communication with ‘‘the headquarters of English
ornithology’’ had proved discouraging on the subject of economic
ornithology, leading him to urge agricultural scientists and ‘‘scientific
ornithologists’’ to provide practical information to agriculturalists. Yet
some who answered Cathcart’s call were clearly biased, such as
naturalist William Bernhard Tegetmeier who produced the colourfully titled
and favourably reviewed The House Sparrow (The Avian Rat): In
Relation to Agriculture and Gardening, with Practical Suggestions for
Lessening its Numbers (1899). An anonymous reviewer (The house
sparrow, 1899) in The Zoologist agreed with Tegetmeier’s assessment of
the sparrow as a ‘‘pestilent marauder,’’ appealing to evidence from both
ornithological authorities and experienced farmers and horticulturalists.
A consummate journalist, Tegetmeier firmly established himself on one
side of the sparrow debate (Richardson, 1916). Other writers were more
cautious, taking steps to incorporate both sides of the sparrow
argument into their studies on economic ornithology.
Formative influences on British economic ornithology included
earlier works of natural history, controversy in the press and the
experiences of acclimatisers and ornithologists abroad. These influences were
illustrated in a short tract on the diet of the house sparrow by
ornithologist Gurney (1885). In the preface of his work, Gurney
acknowledged the ‘‘great public interest’’ surrounding the depredations
of sparrows in England, the Colonies and America, before engaging the
claims made in naturalist William Yarrell’s A History of British Birds
(1843, pp. 474–478). To advance the debate surrounding birds in
agriculture in as balanced and unpolemical a manner as possible, Gurney’s
work contained sections by experts that he hoped would placate both
sparrow lovers and haters. A familiar name was that of Colonel C.
Russell—cast as ‘‘a friend of the farmer’’—who fulfilled his prescribed
role by continuing to maintain that humankind would do as well
without sparrows as without rats or cockroaches (Russell, 1885). When
self-described economic ornithological studies first emerged in Britain,
the imprint of nearly fifty years of debate was evident. Gurney (1885, p.
1) remarked that the ‘‘sparrow question’’ was clearly an important one,
even if only a fraction of what was related by ‘‘farmers’ clubs and
agricultural newspapers’’ turned out to be true.
Despite a rash of new studies in economic ornithology from the late
nineteenth century, British enthusiasts of the science confessed to
lagging behind their American counterparts. Cathcart’s (1892) letter to The
Times remarked that Britons were ‘‘far behind our cousins in the United
States,’’ whose Agricultural Department had been producing valuable
and practical information on birds for growers since 1885. American
expertise was recognised by Gurney, whose tract included a reproduced
section from The English Sparrow in America (1867), authored by
prominent American ornithologist, Dr. Elliot Coues (1885).8 While
many Americans had turned against sparrows during the ‘‘Sparrow
Wars’’ of the 1860s and 1870s, economic ornithology in the United
States enjoyed greater prestige and institutional support than its British
counterpart. Coates (2006, p. 59) describes how ‘‘interested British
parties’’ followed American developments, with an 1879 report to the
Federal government made by Coues ‘‘in considerable demand.’’
In Britain, there was significant public debate about economic
ornithology. In 1895 Gurney presented a paper on the destructiveness of
sparrows at the Norfolk Chamber of Agriculture. Yet new science did
not equate to new attitudes. To cries of ‘‘hear, hear,’’ Gurney informed
the Chamber that the day when sparrows would be placed in the same
category of stinging-nettles and wasps was not far off (Sparrows and
agricultural crops, 1885). Dissections of nearly eight hundred birds had
confirmed Russell’s findings that the diet of adult sparrows consisted of
approximately seventy-five percent corn. This revelation neatly
coincided with the opinion of American economic ornithologists, who
considered the sparrow to largely consume corn, not insects. Yet
Gurney did introduce one caveat to the Chamber:
In conclusion he [Gurney] observed that the sparrow did more
harm than good under ordinary circumstances was proved; but it
was not clear that in the case of the exceptional abundance of some
noxious insect or some noxious weed it might not be of great
service. If the balance of nature was upset by exterminating sparrows
we might have to pay an unknown penalty; and with this in view it
might be wise for the Norfolk Chamber of Agriculture to
recommend their being kept in bounds, but never that they should be
entirely exterminated (Sparrows and agricultural crops, 1885).
In the late 1890s, Tegetmeier collaborated with entomologist Eleanor
Ormerod (consultant to the Royal Agricultural Society of England) to
produce a review of recent studies on the ‘‘sparrow question,’’ with the
8 A former military surgeon, Coues entered the American ‘‘Sparrow Wars’’ in 1874,
engaging in an increasingly bitter debate with physician, journalist and ornithologist
Thomas Mayo Brewer. In 1880, Brewer, ‘‘the only reputable [American] ornithologist to
befriend the sparrow’’ died, leaving Coues to continue his attack upon the birds
(Brodhead, 1971, pp. 428–429).
intention of bringing research to both ‘‘those practically concerned’’ and
the wider public (Ormerod and Tegetmeier, 1897–1898, p. 413).
Russell’s meticulous dissections were singled out for praise, not least
because his work had attracted the attention of both the British Wild Birds
Parliamentary Committee and the Department of Agriculture in the
United States (Ormerod and Tegetmeier, 1897–1898, p. 417). To dispel
any doubts or accusations of fraud, Ormerod and Tegetmeier (1897–
1897, p. 418) reported that Russell’s ‘‘contents of sparrows’’ had been
preserved in glass jars, which clearly contained an ‘‘enormous
proportion of wheat grains.’’ The opinions of both American and British
economic ornithologists had aligned against the sparrow.
Economic biologist Collinge (1913, p. 1) would later state that
‘‘casual observations made in the field’’ had often been invoked in
newspaper discussions on economic ornithology, but were either deficient in
scientific value or actively misleading. As such, economic ornithology
struggled to establish itself as an independent scientific discipline in
Britain. There was little or no sign of institutional formation or training.
Instead, self-professed contributors to British economic ornithology
such as Gurney and Russell emerged from backgrounds in natural
history or agriculture. In the years prior to 1914, there does seem to
have been a temporary flourishing of scientific writings on economic
ornithology, including Collinge’s own textbook, The Food of Some
British Wild Birds (1913). Under wartime conditions, established
practices of species control were again adhered to in agriculture. Sparrows
were portrayed as pests, subject to popular campaigns of extermination.
At the anniversary dinner of the Cricklade Sparrow Club in 1855,
two members proudly produced the result of that year’s efforts; the
grisly remains of 5812 sparrows (Wholesale destruction of sparrows,
1855). Sparrows were contested animals, loved and despised in equal
measure. Yet as the ‘‘sparrow question’’ was debated in meetings,
newspaper columns and journal articles, persecution of the species
continued unabated. By the end of the nineteenth century, it was clear
that the opinions of growers and economic ornithologists had largely
converged on the detrimental effect of sparrows to agriculture.
Accessibility and Non-consensus
Why did the British sparrow debates rage for so long and with such
ferocity? To answer this question, I argue that close attention should be
paid to the changing nature of the Victorian life sciences. Natural
history was an inclusive enterprise, allowing a plethora of diverse voices to
weigh in on the sparrow question. Exchange of information and ideas
between warring social worlds was greatly facilitated by the accessibility
of natural history. Periodicals and newspapers provided a platform for
farmers and naturalists to present their opinions, free of supervision or
patronage. Agreement could not easily be reached when almost anyone
could speak with authority—often drawing upon their own
observations or anecdotes—on the sparrow question. Constraints on who could
speak with scientific authority on the sparrow were therefore required
for consensus to emerge. The decline of natural history in Britain
towards the end of the nineteenth century, a trend paralleled by the rise of
economic ornithology, provided such constraints.9
During the sparrow debates, economic ornithologists and naturalists
such as Ormerod, Russell and Gurney were able to simultaneously
appeal to commercial and scientific communities. All three moved
between social worlds, writing for natural history periodicals, engaging
with ornithological textbooks and addressing agricultural organisations.
Yet an equally influential means of translation was British newspaper
columns. Here, letters were exchanged daily, between both prominent
scientific figures and anonymous farmers and gardeners. Disagreement
and hostility were rife, but slowly resulted in a form of consensus over
how the sparrow question should be addressed.
In 1884 The Ipswich Journal remarked that to resolve the sparrow
debate, traditional prejudices would have to be laid aside and ‘‘more
systematic observations,’’ including dissections, carried out (The
increase and destructiveness of sparrows, 1884). The Western Mail
supported this programme, directing its readers towards early studies in
economic ornithology (Sparrows and the crops, 1885). Systematic
investigations could apparently provide an indisputable source of
objective evidence, to finally solve the question of birds’ utility to the
British grower. A successful model was provided by late
nineteenthcentury investigations in the United States, which involved hundreds of
studies on the role of birds in agriculture (Evenden, 1995, p. 173). Calls
for new approaches represent a form of what Star and Griesemer (1989,
pp. 392–393) termed ‘‘method standardisation.’’ Yet standardisation
alone did not create consensus. Neither quantitative studies, such as
that described in the 1868 Glasgow Herald (Another plea for sparrows,
9 Changes to sparrow behaviour or numbers cannot explain why the sparrow debates
eventually died down. Despite the activities of organisations such as the Cricklade
Sparrow Club, the British sparrow population seemed largely unabashed by the fevered
arguments which seethed around it. Lovegrove (2007, pp. 177–179) estimates that the
sparrow population in Britain remained largely stable until the late twentieth century.
1868), nor the mass dissections later carried out by Russell and Gurney
generated immediate agreement.
Scientific practices such as dissection and quantification may not
have been held in universal esteem. Yet across interested communities,
some theories and methodologies were held in common. Natural history
was utilised by agriculturalists, while naturalists participated in the
activities of acclimatisation societies and economic ornithology. As
Barber (1980, p. 28) stated, until the 1860s, ‘‘the naturalist might be
anyone from Darwin down to the lowliest Sunday bug-hunter.’’ As
anyone who practiced natural history could be classed as a naturalist,
even a lowly bug-hunter could find acceptance across social and
scientific boundaries. While easy access to natural history acted as an
effective translator across communities, this allowed for a great deal of
variable opinion from a large number of actors.
Such was the ubiquity and civic virtue attached to natural history
that naturalists appeared across and within all four social worlds
involved with sparrows during the nineteenth century. Just as moral
lessons were attached to nature, so the practice of natural history was
thought to promote morality and civic duty. In Victorian Scotland, the
rhetoric of natural history societies and field clubs portrayed the
provincial naturalist as both a votary of nature and servant of civic
society (Finnegan, 2005, p. 55). Fieldwork represented a blend of
enlightenment, romantic and theological values, although the scientific
outcome of such activity was perhaps less important than its practice
(Barber, 1980, p. 21; Camerini, 1996, p. 44). Although naturalists were
able to successfully collaborate, consensus on important questions was
not readily reached.
Natural history represented a plethora of interests, involving
investigation of the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms. Participants
with differing degrees of interest in theory, collection or classification,
participated in country or seaside trips. One explanation for the
accessibility of natural history is found in its appeal to common-sense
categorisation of nature, termed ‘‘folktaxonomy’’ or ‘‘folkbiology’’
(Atran, 1990, p. 21; Dunlap, 1999, pp. 22–24). While a flood of exotic
specimens into the Western world overwhelmed traditional categories,
these at least gave naturalists a renewed purpose, based on an
enlightenment faith in human ability to comprehend nature. Other, more
mundane, explanations for the widespread popularity and acceptance of
natural history include the perpetual boredom of affluent Victorian
families (Barber, 1980, p. 19). Regardless of the reasoning behind its
appeal, natural historical work represented a powerful scientific and
social force in nineteenth-century Britain. It is therefore unsurprising to
find its methods applied to the sparrow question by actors in multiple
social worlds. This ubiquity and accessibility may have facilitated
communication across disciplinary and social boundaries, but made
Perhaps the most indicative moment of accessibility equating to
nonconsensus occurred in 1873, during the proceedings of a House of
Commons Committee on the protection of wild birds.10 Witnesses from
a bewildering array of backgrounds and professions were questioned,
with many voicing their opinion upon the sparrow. Cambridge
Professor of Zoology Alfred Newton was dismissive of the quality of the
witnesses called by the Committee: ‘‘ornithologists,
pseudo-ornithologists, farmers, gardeners, bird-catchers, and others’’ (Cowles, 2013,
p. 712). As Thomas Huxley had warned Joseph Hooker in 1859, a ‘‘far
lower order of men’’ could claim to be naturalists than in mathematics
or chemistry (Bellon, 2001, p. 71). Cathcart (1892) later commented
upon the diversity of ‘‘experts’’ called by the Committee in his version of
The Common’s Committee took evidence of thirty-eight experts,
ranging from the learned Rector of Nunburnholme, in Yorkshire,
Mr. Morris, and Professor [Alfred] Newton, the Professor of
Zoology at Cambridge University, down to the cockney
birdcatcher who hailed from Seven Dials. Men of science, farmers,
market gardeners, including amongst others, real-out-of-door
naturalists, pure and simple lovers of science, a barber, a
bookseller, a picture dealer, a hair-dresser, and other trades-men. Yet,
on the question of the criminality or otherwise of the sparrow there
was upon evidence a very evenly balanced conflict of opinion.
The accessibility of natural history was combined with the accessibility
of the Victorian newspaper and periodical to give rise to a plethora of
public opinions on the question of sparrows’ utility in agriculture.
Farmers like Charles Newman could publicly voice their disdain for
bird conservation, while citing eighteenth-century natural history
studies (Newman, 1861). Yet other farmers, such as Joseph Nunn (1897)
found in newspapers a platform to describe their favourable
observations of sparrows consuming insects. Eleanor Ormerod could draw
upon her expertise in entomology to denounce sparrows to
agriculturalists and horticulturalists (Ormerod and Tegetmeier, 1897–1998). Yet
10 Report from the Select Committee on Wild Birds Protection; together with the
proceedings of the committee, minutes of evidence, and appendix, PP, 1873, 338.
at the same time, a Cumberland parson could draw upon his seventeen
years of sparrow observation to support the birds’ utility to growers
(The poor sparrows, 1895). Accessibility to the sparrow debate came at
a cost, as numerous and variable opinions failed to create widespread
consensus until the close of the nineteenth century.
The decline of natural history and rise of biology during the late
nineteenth century constitute a historiographic backbone for established
narratives on the history of the life sciences (Caron, 1988; Allen,
1998).11 Historians of science have charted the gradual division of the
life sciences into a host of separate disciplines. Outram (1996, pp. 249–
250) situates the origin of this movement in the early nineteenth century,
as separate sub-disciplines of physiology and palaeontology emerged,
alongside the foundation of state-funded and controlled institutions. Di
Gregorio (2009, pp. 205–206) describes how ‘‘professional’’
practitioners of the life sciences increasingly based themselves in museums and
universities. Similarly, Johnson (2012, p. 47) noted a change in the
‘‘criteria by which expert status was conferred’’ in the
nineteenth-century life sciences, as figures such as Thomas Henry Huxley and Richard
Owen sought ‘‘to wrest control of science away from traditional title
and fortune.’’ Can the waning popularity and growing consensus on the
sparrow debate therefore be explained through the death of natural
history and ‘‘professionalisation’’ of Victorian science?
There are compelling reasons to accept that the decline of natural
history in the twilight years of the nineteenth century played some role
in the simultaneous decline of the sparrow debate. Newton (1899, p. 21)
noted that, proportionally speaking, general works on ornithology were
being supplanted by specialised monographs. Traditionally, popular
works of natural history were often of a light-hearted or anecdotal
nature (Allen, 1976, pp. 78–79; Barber, 1980, p. 19). Yet by the late
nineteenth century these works stoked the ire of those who followed in
the wake of Darwin. This lesson was cruelly learnt by the Duke of
Argyll when his book The Unity of Nature (1884) was reviewed in
Nature by Darwinist and self-proclaimed comparative psychologist George
11 For a succinct overview of this literature, see Strasser (2010, pp. 149–151).
This book is in our judgement a dreary failure. Although in the
mere matter of style it is a well written popular exposition of what
we may call the comfortable way of looking at things, in all matters
of deeper importance it is utterly barren. Throughout its five or six
hundred pages there is no single observation in science, nor any
single thought in anything that deserves to be called philosophy
(Romanes, 1884, p. 474).
Romanes (1884, p. 474) found the book’s accessible style ‘‘tedious’’ and
criticised the Duke for describing ‘‘elementary science’’ in a ‘‘redundant
manner.’’ At an earlier time, a descriptive and morally-uplifting piece
may have brought its author plaudits. Yet with the decline of natural
history, a common moral purpose based upon accessible fieldwork was
no more. Science had been stripped of its metaphysical trappings
(Nyhart, 2009, pp. 15–16). In such a climate, it was unlikely that moralising
farmers like Newman could quote eighteenth-century natural history
texts and expect to be taken seriously. Although natural history
remained popular among the general public, it experienced what Farber
(2000, p. 98) termed ‘‘a scholarly decline’’ in the academic world of
universities and research institutes. The ‘‘naturalist tradition’’ had been
‘‘sidelined from the most prestigious realms of the life sciences’’
(Johnson, 2012, p. 304).
Yet Romanes’s critical review did not go completely unchallenged.
The Duke of Argyll wrote to Nature to complain that Romanes’s
unpleasant criticism was the result of personal animosity, stemming
from an earlier dispute between the pair (Argyll, 1884, p. 524). The
Duke had taken issue with Romanes using the pages of Nature as a
platform for his ‘‘personal beliefs, and disbeliefs, on subjects which lie
outside the boundaries of physical science’’ (Argyll, 1884, p. 524). This
response suggests that the decline of natural history was not a
straightforward process. Our understanding of what happened to
natural history at the end of the nineteenth century has become more
complex, as it has become clear that naturalists merged with, or resisted,
would-be reformers (Nyhart, 1996). The sparrow debate was part of this
complex picture: natural history was not simply replaced by economic
ornithology. Yet as natural history lost some of intellectual prestige, so
the opportunity emerged for Cathcart and his new science of economic
ornithology to intervene in the sparrow debate.
Contemporary to the decline of natural history was the collapse of
the acclimatisation project, in the face of repeated practical failures
(Osborne, 2000: 151). Newspaper reports on the activities of
acclimatisation societies had provided another accessible source of field
observations on the impact of sparrows on agriculture. By 1860,
acclimatisation repeatedly appeared in the British news, supported by
luminaries such as Richard Owen and Frank Buckland. Yet its
amateurish aspects and overly-utilitarian goals ensured the project gained
only a tenuous following among professional zoologists (Osborne, 2000,
p. 146). Ritvo (2012, p. 405) characterises the movement as an extension
of the game parks and menageries held by the wealthy and powerful: a
makeup hardly endearing to a growing opposition against ‘‘traditional
title and fortune’’ (Johnson, 2012, p. 47).
These changes lend support to Broks’ (1996) and Allen’s (1998)
declarations of the decline of natural history as part of a wider
revolution in biology. Yet the transition from natural history to separate
biological disciplines did not occur overnight, or even in a coherent
fashion. Nyhart (1996, pp. 439–441) charts the division of natural
history into numerous sub-disciplines to account for the apparent decline
of the field by 1900. Did disciplinary formation, institutionalisation and
‘‘professionalisation’’ provide answers to the sparrow question? Not in
the case of ornithology. In 1858 an assembly of ornithologists led by
Alfred Newton met in Cambridge, creating an Ornithological Union
with The Ibis as its official publication (Bircham, 2007, pp. 189–190).12
Yet organisation of ornithologists did not translate into practical
advances in the field.13 One essential piece of the jigsaw—ethology, or the
study of animal behaviour under natural conditions—was absent. The
term ethology only appeared in its modern context in 1902, with several
decades passing before the large ethological congresses of the 1950s and
1960s were held (Burkhardt, 2005, p. 3–4). As late as 1896, a reviewer in
Nature saw ornithology as falling under the familiar remit of natural
The issue of works on ornithology continues in an unbroken
stream. There can be little doubt that since the arrangement of the
birds in the National Museum in South Kensington, in their
natural attitudes and surroundings, was adopted—a system largely
followed in many of our provincial museums—there has been a
distinct interest taken in natural history (Bowdler Sharpe, 1896).
12 This meeting marked the origin of the British Ornithologists’ Union (B.O.U), which
still operates today.
13 When ornithologists did enter the sparrow debate, their opinion was not always
welcome. The United States’ first ornithological society, the Nuttall Ornithological
Club, was savaged in the local press following an 1878 meeting condemning the sparrow
(Barrow Jr, Barrow, 1998, pp. 49–50).
Aided by the input of American specialists, British economic
ornithologists did provide compelling arguments against the agricultural utility
of sparrows. Yet their story was not one of traditional
‘‘professionalisation.’’ Cathcart (1892, p. 326) was keen to see the establishment of a
‘‘small school of Economic Ornithology,’’ with candidates recruited
from agricultural colleges. Yet his ideal specialist produced by such a
school would be an ‘‘unselfish,’’ yet financially independent figure like
Ormerod, or product of the School of Agricultural Chemistry Sir John
Lawes (Cathcart, 1892, p. 326).14 Perhaps in part due to this social
makeup, the findings of economic ornithology’s practitioners on
sparrows quickly accorded with the concerns and opinions of broad sections
of the agricultural community. Consensus between scientific thought
and growers’ opinion on the sparrow had been reached.
Aspects of the natural world have always served as a template or foil for
human society. The emergence of a consensus on the detriment of
sparrows to agriculture reflects changes in the British life sciences in the
late nineteenth century. For over half a century, sustained debate
occurred on the sparrow question. Yet multiple actors failed to agree upon
a single representation of nature. This state of affairs only began to
change as the nineteenth century wore on. In tandem with the decline of
natural history and acclimatisation, interest and controversy over
sparrows began to wane. Simultaneously, rising sub-disciplines in the
life sciences such as economic ornithology appeared. Although this
movement was not made up of ‘‘professional’’ scientists in the modern
sense, it was exclusionary to those lacking patronage or an established
reputation (Bellon, 2001, p. 53). Yet these communities did display
greater internal coherence and hence, the ability to achieve consensus
with other like-minded social worlds.
Natural history, with its lofty, albeit not necessarily coherent, ideals
of rationality, romanticism and theology, had acted as a common
denominator in the nineteenth-century life sciences. Seeking to classify
and understand the natural world in its entirety, its varied practitioners
justified their communal fieldwork with reference to moral and civic
14 Cathcart’s view of what constituted the ideal expert or professional is markedly
similar to that described by Bellon’s (2001, p. 58) account of botanist Joseph Hooker’s
conception of the scientific professional: principled, reputable, social and ‘‘gentlemanly
in mind & person’’.
virtue alongside utility. Despite a shared theoretical justification and
standard practices of field observation, the subjective and popular
aspects of natural history resulted in a sustained debate over the utility of
sparrows. Yet by the end of the century, natural history was in decline,
while acclimatisers were dogged by repeated failures. Economic
ornithologists appeared to largely side with agriculturalists,
recommending the control of sparrow populations in order to protect crops.
This consensus has important implications for narratives of progressive
and increasingly humanitarian approaches to wild nature (ferae naturae)
from the nineteenth century (Thomas, 1983; Ritvo, 1987; Coates, 1998).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the long-standing social world inhabited by
agriculturists, which had largely consisted of an almost unrelenting
barrage of hostility towards sparrows, proved most resilient. The
existing opinions of this community were lent further backing by
economic ornithologists. As a consequence, the First World War saw
sparrows persecuted as an agricultural pest on a systematic level (Sheail,
1976, p. 122; Horn, 1984, pp. 47–48). Yet by the middle of the twentieth
century, huge flocks of sparrows remained a common sight in British
fields. Despite three hundred years of destruction, sparrow populations
declined only during the 1990s (Lovegrove, 2007, pp. 177–179).
Sparrows, the objects of study and controversy for more than 50 years,
proved more resilient than many of the disciplines which sought to
understand, support or persecute them.
I would like to thank my supervisors, Professor Greg Radick and Dr.
Tina Barsby, for their support and feedback. An earlier version of
this paper was presented at the 2015 British Society for the History of
Science Postgraduate Conference at University College London: the
following discussion was very encouraging. I am also grateful to the
anonymous reviewers, whose comments greatly improved this article.
This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons
Attribution 4.0 International License
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to
the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative
Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
House of Commons Parliamentary Papers; referred to as PP.
''A plague of sparrows .'' 1878 . The Derby Mercury, 05 June.
Allen , D. E. 1976 . The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History . Harmondsworth: Penguin.
-- 1996. ''Tastes and Crazes .'' N. Jardine , J. A. Secord and E. C. Spary (eds.), Cultures of Natural History . Cambridge : Cambridge University Press , pp. 394 - 407 .
-- 1998 . '' On parallel lines: natural history and biology from the late Victorian period .'' Archives of Natural History 25 : 361 - 371 .
Anderson , W. 1992 . ''Climates of Opinion: Acclimatization in Nineteenth-Century France and England .'' Victorian Studies 35 : 135 - 157 .
''Another plea for sparrows .'' 1868 . Glasgow Herald, 12 September.
Argyll. 1884 . ' 'The unity of nature .'' Nature 29 : 524 - 525 .
Atran , S. 1990 . Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards Anthropology of Science . Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
Barber , L. 1980 . The Heyday of Natural History 1820-1870 . London: Jonathan Cape.
Barrow , M .V. Jr 1998 . A Passion for Birds: American Ornithology After Audubon . Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Becher , R. A. 1885 . '' Sparrows Feeding on Ants.'' The Zoologist 3 : 259 .
Bellon , R. 2001 . ''Joseph Dalton Hooker's ideals for a professional man of science .'' Journal of the History of Biology 34 : 51 - 82 .
-- 2011 . ' 'Inspiration in the harness of daily labor: Darwin, botany, and the triumph of evolution , 1859 - 1868 .'' Isis 102 : 393 - 420 .
Bircham , P. 2007 . A History of Ornithology. London: HarperCollins Publishers.
Bowdler Sharpe , R. 1896 . '' Books on birds.'' Nature 54 : 58 - 60 .
Brodhead , M. J. 1971 . '' Elliot Coues and the Sparrow War.'' New England Quarterly 44 : 420 - 433 .
Broks , P. 1996 . Media Science before the Great War . London: Macmillan Press.
Burkhardt , R. W. Jr 2005. Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz , Niko Tinbergen , and the Founding of Ethology . Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Camerini , J. R. 1996 . ''Wallace in the Field .'' Osiris 11 : 44 - 65 .
Caron , J. A. 1988 . ' ''Biology' in the Life Sciences: A Historiographical Contribution .'' History of Science 26 : 223 - 268 .
Cathcart , A. F. 1892 . '' Agriculturally economic ornithology.'' The Times , 16 May.
Coates , P. A. 1998 . Nature: Western Attitudes since Ancient Times . London: Polity.
-- 2006. American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species: Strangers on the Land . Berkeley: University of California Press.
Collinge , W. E. 1913 . The Food of Some British Wild Birds: A Study in Economic Ornithology . London: Dulau and Co.
Coues , E. 1885 . ' 'The English Sparrow in America .'' J. H. Gurney (ed.), The House Sparrow. London: William Wesley and Son , pp. 50 - 62 .
Cowles , H. M. 2013 . '' A Victorian Extinction: Alfred Newton and the Evolution of Animal Protection.'' The British Journal for the History of Science 46 : 695 - 714 .
De Tschudi , F. ( Ibbetson , H. L. B , Trans.). 1862 . '' Destructive Insects and the Immense Utility of Birds.'' The Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England 23 : 231 - 246 .
Dearce , M. 2008 . '' Correspondence of Charles Darwin on James Torbitt 's Project to Breed Blight-Resistant Potatoes.'' Archives of Natural History 35 : 208 - 222 .
''Destruction of small birds .'' 1862 . The Times, 29 April.
''Destruction of sparrows .'' 1841 . The Quarterly Journal of Agriculture 11 : 432 - 434 .
Di Gregorio , M. A. 2009 . ''Zoology.' ' P. J. Bowler and J. V. Pickstone (eds.), The Cambridge History of Science: The Modern Biological and Earth Sciences , vol. Six. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press , pp. 205 - 224 .
Dunlap , T. R . 1999 . Nature and the English Diaspora: Environment and History in the United States , Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
Evenden , M. D. 1995 . ' 'The Laborers of Nature: Economic Ornithology and the Role of Birds as Agents of Biological Pest Control in North American Agriculture , ca. 1880 - 1930 .'' Forest & Conservation History 39 : 172 - 183 .
Farber , P. L. 2000 . Finding Order in Nature: The Naturalist Tradition from Linnaeus to E . O. Wilson. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.
''Farmers and sparrows .'' 1867 . The Essex Standard, and General Advertiser for the Eastern Counties, 25 December.
-- 1897 . The Morning Post, 15 April.
Finnegan , D. A. 2005 . ''Natural History Societies in Late Victorian Scotland and the Pursuit of Local Civic Science .' ' The British Journal for the History of Science 38 : 53 - 72 .
Gates , B. T. 1998 . Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living World . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Goldsmith , O. 1816 , c. 1774. A History of the Earth and Animated Nature . Volume One. London: Wingrave and Collingwood.
Gurney , J. H. 1885 . The House Sparrow . London: William Wesley and Son.
Horn , P. 1984 . Rural life in England in the First World War . New York : Gill and Macmillan.
Johnson , K. 2012 . Ordering Life: Karl Jordan and the Naturalist Tradition . Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.
Lever , C. 1992 . They Dined on Eland: The Story of the Acclimatisation Societies . London: Quiller Press.
Lovegrove , R. 2007 . Silent Fields: The Long Decline of a Nation's Wildlife . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
MacDonald , D. G. F. 1865 . '' Our little birds.'' The Times , 11 October.
McNeill , J. R. 2003 . ''Observations on the nature and culture of environmental history . '' History and Theory 42 : 5 - 43 .
Nelson , D. L. 2016 . ' 'The Ravages of Teredo: the Rise and Fall of Shipworm in US history , 1860 - 1940 .'' Environmental History 21 : 100 - 124 .
Newman , C. 1861 . ''Destructive powers of sparrows .'' Nottinghamshire Guardian , 05 November.
Newton , A. 1899 . A Dictionary of Birds. London: Adam and Charles Black .
Nunn J. P. 1897 . '' Yorkshire farmers and sparrows.'' The Times , 21 December.
Nyhart , L. K. 1996 . '' Natural history and the ''new'' biology.'' N. Jardine , J. A. Secord and E. C. Spary (eds.), Cultures of Natural History . Cambridge : Cambridge University Press , pp. 426 - 443 .
-- 2009 . Modern Nature : The Rise of the Biological Perspective in Germany . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ormerod , E. A. and Tegetmeier , W. B. 1897 - 1998 . ' 'The house sparrow .'' Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society 21 : 413 - 425 .
Osborne , M. A. 2000 . ''Acclimatizing the World: A History of Pragmatic Colonial Science .'' Osiris 15 : 135 - 151 .
Outram , D. 1996 . ''New Spaces in Natural History .'' N. Jardine , J. A. Secord and E. C. Spary (eds.), Cultures of Natural History . Cambridge : Cambridge University Press , pp. 249 - 265 .
Rehbock , P. F. 1983 . The Philosophical Naturalists: Themes in Early Nineteenth-CenturyBritish Biology . Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Richardson , E. W. 1916 . A Veteran Naturalist. London: Witherby & Co.
Ritvo , H. 1987 . The Animal Estate: The English and other Creatures in the Victorian Age . Cambridge : Harvard University Press.
-- 2012 . '' Going Forth and Multiplying: Animal Acclimatization and Invasion.'' Environmental History 17 : 404 - 414 .
Romanes , G. J. 1884 . ' 'The Unity of Nature .'' Nature 29 : 474 - 478 .
Russell , C. 1883 . '' Martins and Sparrows.'' Essex Field Club 3 : 20 - 23 .
-- 1885 . ' 'The house sparrow: by a friend of the farmers .'' J. H. Gurney (ed.), The House Sparrow. London: William Wesley and Son , pp. 19 - 45 .
Seebohm , H. 1883 . A History of British Birds , vol. 1. London: RH Porter.
Seeley , J. and Skabelund , A. 2015 . ''Tigers-Real and Imagined-In Korea's Physical and Cultural Landscape .'' Environmental History 20 : 475 - 503 .
Seitz , J. 2007 . ''Three Hundred Years of House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) Persecution in Germany .'' Archives of Natural History 34 : 307 - 317 .
Sheail , J. 1976 . ''Land Improvement and Reclamation: The Experiences of the First World War in England and Wales .'' Agricultural History Review 24 : 110 - 125 .
''Sparrows and corn .'' 1884 . The York Herald, 10 July.
''Sparrows and agricultural crops .'' 1885 . Berrow's Worcester Journal , 22 August.
''Sparrows and the crops .'' 1885 . Western Mail, 27 August.
Specht , J. 2016 . ' 'The Rise , Fall, and Rebirth of the Texas Longhorn: An Evolutionary History.'' Environmental History 21 : 343 - 363 .
Star , S. L. and Griesemer , J. R. 1989 . ''Institutional Ecology, ' Translations' and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology , 1907 - 1939 .'' Social Studies of Science 19 : 387 - 420 .
Strasser , B. J. 2010 . ''Laboratories, Museums, and the Comparative Perspective: Alan A. Boyden 's Quest for Objectivity in Serological Taxonomy, 1924 - 1962 .'' Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 40 : 149 - 182 .
Tegetmeier , W. B. 1899 . The House Sparrow (The Avian Rat): In Relation to Agriculture and Gardening, with Practical Suggestions for Lessening its Numbers . London: Vinton & Co.
''The destruction of sparrows .'' 1862 . Jackson's Oxford Journal , 06 December.
''The farmers and the sparrows .'' 1889 . Leicester Chronicle and the Leicestershire Mercury , 28 December.
''The house sparrow (the avian rat) in relation to agriculture and gardening with practical suggestions for lessening its numbers . By W. B. Tegetmeier , F. Z. S. , &c. Vinton & Co.'' 1899 . The Zoologist 3: 375 .
''The increase and destructiveness of sparrows .'' 1884 . The Ipswich Journal, 12 August.
''The sparrow in the United States .'' 1889 . The Times, 29 October.
''The troubles of our friends in Australia .'' 1868 . The Times, 02 December.
''The sparrow club .'' 1855 . The Times, 20 December.
''The English sparrow .'' 1868 . The Times, 13 August.
''The ubiquitous sparrow .'' 1889 . Rural World, 07 September: 452 .
''The poor sparrows .'' 1895 . The Morning Post, 08 June.
Thomas , K. 1983 . Man and the Natural World . London: Allen Lane.
Todd , K. 2012 . Sparrow. London: Reaktion Books.
Wallace , R . (Ed.). 1904 . Eleanor Ormerod, LL.D. Economic Entomologist. Auto-Biography and Correspondence . New York: E.P. Dutton and Company.
''Wholesale destruction of sparrows .'' 1855 . Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 02 December.
Willis , R. G. 1974 . Man and Beast . London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon.
Wilmot , S. 1985 . The Business of Improvement: Agriculture and Scientific Culture in Britain, c. 1770-c . 1870 . Cheltenham: Institute of British Geographers .
Worster , D. 1985 . Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas , 2nd ed. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
Yarrel , W. 1843 . A History of British Birds , vol. 1. London: John Van Voorst.
''Yorkshire farmers and sparrows .'' 1896 . The Times, 08 December.