26 May 2009

The sparrow question

What'chu lookin' at?
Originally uploaded by eT le snap
The Auckland colonial newspaper, the Southern Cross, of 150 years ago catered to the usual obsessions of the era. Its front page of 27 May 1859 was dominated by shipping advertisements for passage to Australia and England, for sale notices for the contents of ship cargoes recently landed at Auckland’s docks, and the usual want ads of the time (‘Wanted in the country, about three miles from the Town, a Middle-aged WOMAN, as a general servant and Cook. She is to have good references from her last situation’.)

Actual news reports do not kick in until near the end of page two, with reports on the Queen’s Birthday celebrations, a Supreme Court case (Petschler v. Young) regarding the provisions of the Customs Regulations Act 1858, and a two-month-old letter from a London correspondent updating the colonies on the Parliamentary goings-on of Disraeli and Palmerston.

Buried beneath a brief report on the return to relative civilisation of Dr Hochstetter's expedition into the dense bush of the central North Island, there is an even briefer report on a small aspect of New Zealand history that, while seemingly insignificant at the time, still shapes our environment in the 21st century:

The long talked of importation of sparrows will shortly take place. Mr Brodie has shipped three hundred on board the Swordfish, carefully selected from the best hedgerows in England. The food alone, he informs us, put on board for them cost £18. The sparrow question has been long standing in Auckland; but the necessity to the farmers of small birds to keep down the grubs is admitted on all sides. There is no security in this country against the armies of caterpillars, taking off the grain crops as clean as if mowed by a scythe. Mr Brodie has already acclimatized the pheasant, which is abundant in the North. The descent from pheasants to sparrows is somewhat of an anti-climax; but should the latter multiply, the greater benefit will have been conferred on the country. There will be much laughing about the sparrows; but we are glad to see that Mr Brodie maintains his reputation, even in trifles, of always doing what he has once said he will do.

This brief passage, whimsical in tone though it may be, gives an early glimpse of the introduction of the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) to New Zealand.

This archive indicates that the Swordfish, a Shaw Savill vessel, arrived in Auckland on 12 July 1859 after a passage of 132 days from Gravesend and Dungeness with 18 passengers aboard. The Southern Cross of 15 July 1859 contains advertisements of many goods newly unloaded from the ship's hold, including 100 cases and 150 half-cases of Geneva gin, 100 cases of bottled beer, 400 dozen of Marzetti's ale and stout, 63 anchors, 75 dozen Bright Patent spades, 16 jam boilers (30 to 80 gallons capacity).

Of course, there was always the chance that the entire thing was a joke - after all, sparrows 'carefully selected from the best hedgerows in England' has the ring of a leg-pull to it. But the introduction did proceed, and as with so many of the actions of the colonial acclimatisation societies in New Zealand, the introduction of the house sparrow proved to have far-reaching consequences for the native flora and fauna. Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, notes that:

They were intended to help reduce the swarms of crop-eating insect pests. However, while they do feed their nestlings on caterpillars, beetles, flies and spiders for the first week after hatching, at other times they are more interested in grains and fruit than insects. They can cause significant damage to wheat, barley and maize crops.

Sadly for the sparrows aboard the Swordfish, they were not able to play their foreseen role as the vanguard of the colony's war against insect pests. The 15 July 1859 Southern Cross reported:

'Good news for the grubs' - We are sorry to have to say that none of the sparrows, 360 in number, shipped by Mr Brodie on board the Swordfish, lived to see New Zealand. They began to die shortly after leaving England. We regret that Mr Brodie's spirited enterprise should have failed of success; he deserves, however, no less credit for having made the attempt. We saw on board the Swordfish a very health well conditioned specimen of our old friend the black-bird. We understand that the sparrows were shipped in five cages. The large number necessarily together in one cage must, we think, have contributed to the mortality amongst our old hedge friends.

Despite the sparrows' sad end, the aforementioned Mr Brodie eventually got his way and introduced the birds to the colony, but he did not remain in New Zealand to see the long-term effects. A member of the House of Representatives from 1856 to 1859 and a prominent local trader in Auckland, Walter Brodie later inherited a considerable estate from his father, who was a major shareholder in The Times newspaper of London. He returned to England with his family in 1870, where he lived for the remainder of his life.
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