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In 1910, pesky sparrow became a favorite with pot pie connoisseurs

Published August 07. 2010 09:00AM

While the sound of chirping birds may be pleasing to many people, it can often become a much more sinister song for farmers. Just by their sheer numbers, birds can turn into nuisances, perhaps not as menacing as Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 terror-filled movie classic, "The Birds," but certainly they can spell destruction to fruit and crop fields.

Since American farmers first began tilling the soil, the sparrow has been synonymous with the word pest. The author of a report by the Indiana State Board of Agriculture blamed the import of the bird on foreigners who in "yearning for the chirp and presence of the sparrow, have helped to heap a curse upon us, instead of a blessing."

Sparrows were brought to this country from the Old World, mainly, if not entirely, from Great Britain and Germany. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture bulletin in 1889, the first English Sparrow arrived in the fall of 1850, when the Hon. Nicolas Pike and other directors of the Brooklyn Institute imported eight pairs into Brooklyn, N.Y.

That first batch did not survive but new imports did. In 1860, 12 birds were turned loose in New York City and, in 1866, another 200 were set free in the city.

People began to take them to other places, and because the birds were carefully handled and protected, they multiplied rapidly, forming new colonies which then spread steadily.

As the birds multiplied, so did their path of destructiveness.

"They seriously disfigure ornamental vines, forest, shade and evergreen trees by their gregarious habits and filth, and many a beautiful tree or vine is thus ruined," one writer said. "Many observers at the Department of Agriculture grounds in Washington found sparrows stripping the flower buds from the ornamental bushes and the buds from the shade trees throughout the city.

"The observer could see them scanning the limbs and branches, removing almost all of the fruit blossoms. The pear and apple buds suffer enormously and many a failure in our fruit crop is attributed to droughts, cold weather, etc, when in reality the pugnacious bird is largely responsible for it."

The sparrow was a menace to the grape farmer, as growers in 26 states reported damage from the birds to their vineyards.

One farmer explained how the bird was destroying his apple crop.

"I have several trees in my garden and as soon as the fruits gets mellow, they peck holes in it, and it either drops to the ground or decays on the trees. I can hardly get a single apple fit to eat," he said.

As the sparrow population grew, the hunters and destroyers of many a fruit crop soon became the hunted. One Indiana writer explained how in Europe as well as America, the birds had become part of the diet for some, but he didn't believe that "sparrow pie" would become very popular in the Hoosier state.

Consumers in other areas, however, felt differently. Given the high meat prices a century ago it made the birds fair game. By the summer of 1910 the sparrow pie had become a big hit in western Pennsylvania.

"The sparrow potpie habit has resulted in practical extinction of sparrows in many sections of Pittsburgh and the surrounding country," a writer stated in the Tamaqua Courier in late July. "Their scarcity has been noticeable for some time."

Since there was no law against killing sparrows, the open season made sparrow potpie a meal of choice at many dinner tables.

"Those who have formed the habit say the sparrow is fine eating," a writer said, "and that the difference between them and reed birds is so slight as not to be noticeable."

Two decades earlier, The New York Times reported on how the sparrow had become a delicacy in great demand at city restaurants.

"English sparrows are being properly appreciated," the Times writer said. "As soon as it becomes known that the sparrow is a table bird, their number will grow less."

The writer told of one German woman in the city who caught as many as 75 birds a week in her three traps. She then cooked the birds (with a bit of bacon) and served them to her boarders.

"People don't like to experiment, but when it is discovered that the sparrow has been declared good by those upon whom they have been tried, no boarding house meal will be deemed in good form unless a dish of fat sparrows adorns it," he stated. "Sparrow pie is a delicacy fit to set before a king."

In Albany, N.Y., English sparrows were bringing $1 per hundred, or 25 cents per dozen, during the fall of 1887. With this kind of bounty, they were literally fair game for many a young marksman.

Marksmen like the Albany lad who shot 135 of the "little pests" during a Saturday of shooting, kept poultry dealers well supplied. A well-known Albany dealer took in 1,700 birds in one week and quickly sold them to pot-pie connoisseurs.

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