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The Monday Excerpt: The coming of the sparrow

From a new anthology of bird writing in New Zealand, the great naturalist Herbert Guthrie-Smith describes the introduction of a bird known by all: the sparrow. This excerpt is from his classic 1921 book Tutira.

In October of 1882, a month, that is, after our arrival at Tutira, a small flight of sparrows rested for a brief space on the woodheap. The species had reached the station neither by mountaintop, coast, or river-bed, but by road. They had followed — surely one of the most interesting treks in natural history — the highway of man through the very heart of the North Island.

Sparrows were imported and turned out by the Auckland Acclimatisation Society in 1867. Two years later the Society reports: “Sparrows have increased largely, but seem reluctant to go far from home, though stragglers are occasionally met with.” A few years later their migration must have begun, for in 1876 they were suspected to be at Opepe on the Taupo road. In 1877 we find the Hawke’s Bay Acclimatisation Society requesting their Committee “to take any necessary steps for the destruction of sparrows said to be in the district”. In 1880 specimens were shot near Hastings; in 1881 they had reached Napier; by 1882 they were present at Tutira. In 15 years, therefore, the sparrow had travelled nearly 200 miles through an uninhabited waste, had invaded the settled portion of Hawke’s Bay, and had even begun to follow up tracks leading away from that district.

A chief reason for the choice of man’s highway as his route of migration may be found in the sparrow’s relation to and reliance on man. Passer domesticus is his name, and passer domesticus is his nature. Of all wild creatures that utilise our roads in New Zealand, none take advantage of them in so great a measure as the sparrow. He knows, perhaps instinctively, that it is man who provides for him shelter plantations, building sites, and food. The man-built road by which he moves is indeed in itself a provision house. There are to be found on it horse-droppings containing undigested oats, foodstuff thrown down by travellers, wheat, barley, and grass seed fallen from sacks. On either side of its white sinuous line, so conspicuous from above, so markedly dissimilar to surrounding surfaces, extend tilled earth and land in crop.

Auckland, where the sparrow was liberated in 1867, is built on a narrow strip of sandy land; east and west of it lies the ocean. Northwards protrudes a meagre egress leading towards land poor in quality and covered with scrub. In the opposite direction ran the only road of the period, the Great South Road. By this route via Mercer, along the Waikato River to Cambridge, by the armed constabulary posts to Hawke’s Bay, through uninhabited belts of forest, tussock-grass, and bracken, sparrows holding to the road moved south. Finally, debouching from the ranges of the interior and striking the open lands of western Hawke’s Bay, they followed coastwards one of the bullock-tracks of that period, unmetalled, uncrowned, in winter a quagmire, in spring nor’-westers rutted deep and dry, in summer thick in powdered dust, but always distinct, always dissimilar to other surfaces, and always full of promise to the sparrow tribe.

JN Williams has often told me of the circumstances of first seeing sparrows in Hawke’s Bay. He was taking delivery of cattle in early spring. Snow had fallen in calm weather; lying on the ground and resting on the trees, its whiteness brought into additional prominence a party of sparrows perched on a plum-tree in the station garden and feeding in its vicinity.

Two years later, sparrows had reached Frimley, Williams’s beautiful residence near Hastings. He has described to me how wild and shy the birds seemed to have become after their journey through the wilderness, and how difficult it was to obtain a proper view of them. They had, in fact, in some degree become a tree-top species and kept resolutely to the upper branches of the tall eucalypts. After considerable delay specimens were shot for proof, for until they were actually handled and viewed, Williams’s friends would not believe — “it seemed impossible to them that the sparrow could have reached Hawke’s Bay in so brief a period over such a stretch of wild country.”

After sparrows were first seen on Tutira, they were not again noticed for many years. These were the winter starvation times, when not a fat sheep or beast was to be had; when oats and chaff, milk and butter were unknown; when the fowls went without grain; when, in fact, Tutira was no fit place for any decent self-respecting sparrow. Not only was there no food, but there was not a tree about the homestead able to support a nest. No wonder the sparrow scorned the naked, treeless, poverty stricken station.

By 1892 conditions had somewhat altered; the sparrow then for the first time bred with us; two nests were built that year in an African box-thorn hedge which had been planted round the original garden. Later again, there was a large increase in the sparrow population; pines planted in the late 1870s had grown into trees big enough to provide ample nestingquarters. In their vicinity a considerable patch of oats had been reaped; there, attracted by the cropping and by auspicious nestingsites, 40-50 pairs established themselves.

The small bush reserves on the lowland of Tutira are now, during the breeding season, overrun by multitudes of sparrows. In summertime they devour insect life, seeds and berries. Later, they vacate their fine-weather quarters and strike a road, following it to the nearest homestead. There they remain till spring-time, when once again they move abroad.

Nowadays I find the winter numbers of the sparrow depend on the amount of oats grown, and on the number of contract plough-camps, where teams are fed, where there is always grain spilt from nose-bags or unfinished in feeding-troughs. Probably a chart would show pretty accurately the relation of the sparrow population to the price of wool in London: with prices good more ploughing is done, more horse-feed grown; with process bad, less. Like his fellow-mortals in New Zealand, the species is affected by events taking place at the other end of the world — events which he cannot control and for which he is in no degree responsible.


From Bird Words: New Zealand Writers on Birds (Penguin Random House, $35), edited by Elisabeth Easther, and including the work of Janet Frame, Hone Tuwhare, Steve Braunias, Rachael King, Sam Hunt and others, available from Unity Books.

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