In Australia, like so many other countries, the house sparrow is one of the five most commonly seen birds in backyards and gardens. This is a result of intentional introductions over the past two centuries.
The story of how house sparrows came to Australia has several new twists. Recent research shows just how much effort was made to introduce the species as an early form of bio-control (almost a century before the cane toad was introduced to help control the cane beetle).
Most surprisingly, historical documents reveal that the first house sparrows to arrive and breed in Australia actually arrived from India, not England as has been believed for more than 100 years.
Alongside them came the most vilified introduced bird in Australia, the common myna.
Over the past two centuries Australia has become a new home for hundreds of introduced species of plants and animals. Many of these have become serious pests, causing major losses to agricultural production and threatening Australia’s endemic biodiversity.
The house sparrow and myna dominate many urban areas in Australia but, on account of their dependence on people, have mostly stayed in human-modified environments. They have apparently caused little damage to native species.
While species have been introduced to Australia for a variety of reasons, many people assume that these birds were introduced for very frivolous ones.
Common belief is that English songbirds were introduced by homesick colonists so they could once again hear the familiar sounds of home, in a land where the birds were unfamiliar. But our research reveals a different story.
The sparrow campaign
The first sparrows arrived in Australia in late 1862. They were shipped after a prolonged campaign led by Edward Wilson, editor of the Melbourne Argus.
Wilson had established the Victorian Acclimatisation Society, set up with the support of the Victorian government to import useful species. Sparrows, it was thought, could help the struggling agricultural sector.
A series of articles and editorials in 1860-61 drew attention to famines in Hungary and France that were reportedly caused by the destruction of so many songbirds in the farming districts of those countries.
Studies in Switzerland showed that while sparrows do cause some damage to fruit crops, this is outweighed by the number of insect pests that the birds feed to their nestlings (3,000 per nest).
In 1860 Wilson called for farmers to “wage war” on insects pests with sparrows and starlings. He also confessed that:
I like to see a bird in the streets, and I have a kindly feeling for the sparrow for his friendly confidence in this way.
This attitude may explain accusations of frivolity, but the sparrow was valued above other birds because they associated more strongly with people than other birds, and their worth had been demonstrated in Europe and New York where they had been introduced to attack insects defoliating city trees.
By today’s standards, however, efforts to ascertain the ecological and agricultural risks were very poor. The same people are also to blame for the introduction of the rabbit, fox and carp – to mention just three major pests.
So, in the early 1860s, Wilson and the Acclimatisation Society went to great efforts to transport birds from Europe. Birds were kept alive during the long voyage by sea and then acclimated to Australian conditions by being held in large aviaries in Melbourne (on the site that later became the Melbourne Zoo), before their release around the colony. This was a challenging enterprise and the value of a live sparrow arriving in Melbourne encouraged greater care on board the ships.
An inadvertent consequence of the economic value placed on the arrival of a sparrow in Australia was that it created a new market for opportunism. The sea passage from India was significantly shorter than that from Europe and an enterprising shipping agent in India, G. J. Landells, took full advantage of this.
New research has uncovered clear documentary evidence that house sparrows arrived from India in 1862 and were breeding successfully in Melbourne before any arrived alive from England (in early 1863). This means it is highly likely that the house sparrows in Australia today are a genetic mix of Indian and European sparrows. The house sparrows in India were native to the subcontinent and are a different race of house sparrow from the one in Europe.
The newspapers of the time also make it clear that, along with each shipment of sparrows from India, a number of common mynas also arrived. This is presumably because they were abundant in the same places as the sparrows and it was argued that they would be a useful addition for eating insects in towns and farms.
In 1863, Landells placed an advertisement in The Sydney Morning Herald offering to export more “minas” to Melbourne for 20 shillings each, and house sparrows at ten shillings each.
While it’s unlikely that he became rich on the back of such a market, his enterprise changed the avian landscape of Australia’s backyards forever.