Daily Bulletin

The Conversation

  • Written by Simon Griffith, Professor of Avian Behavioural Ecology, Macquarie University

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Most surprisingly, historical documents reveal that the first house sparrows to arrive and breed in Australia actually arrived from India, not England as has been believed for more than 100 years.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.

Introduced birds

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.

image If you have mynas nearby, you’ll know about it. Myna image from www.shutterstock.com

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.

Indian arrivals

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.

Authors: Simon Griffith, Professor of Avian Behavioural Ecology, Macquarie University

Read more http://theconversation.com/city-sparrows-came-to-australia-via-india-59730

Writers Wanted

Expert guide on health and safety when your ‘workplace’ is the road

arrow_forward

Demand in Birtinya surges, Cube Development sells out

arrow_forward

What you should know about android incentive installs

arrow_forward

The Conversation
INTERWEBS DIGITAL AGENCY

Politics

Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivered Keynote Address at AFR Business Summit

Well, thank you all for the opportunity to come and be with you here today. Can I also acknowledge the Gadigal people, the Eora Nation, the elders past and present and future. Can I also acknowled...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Morrison Government commits record $9B to social security safety net

The Morrison Government is enhancing our social security safety net by increasing support for unemployed Australians while strengthening their obligations to search for work.   From March the ...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Ray Hadley's interview with Scott Morrison

RAY HADLEY: Prime Minister, good morning.    PRIME MINISTER: G’day Ray.   HADLEY: I was just referring to this story from the Courier Mail, which you’ve probably caught up with today about t...

Ray Hadley & Scott Morrison - avatar Ray Hadley & Scott Morrison

Business News

Expert guide on health and safety when your ‘workplace’ is the road

The boom in ridesharing, food delivery and parcel delivery services has seen more cars on the road for work purposes. In 2020, online retail sales were up 63 per cent,[1] and food delivery service...

The Ideas Suite - avatar The Ideas Suite

Step by Step Moving Guide for Moving an Office

Compromising office hours, carrying bulk equipment, moving sensitive files — office relocation is no cakewalk. There is so much to do when you want to relocate your office. Aside from the major tas...

News Co - avatar News Co

5 Effective Employee Retention Strategies You Can Apply to Your Organization

Your employees are the lifeblood of your organization. No matter how great you think your company is, without the right talents to keep your business up and running, all your efforts to rise above...

News Co Media - avatar News Co Media