Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sparrows: What Are They Good for?

Let your cat out. It's not kitties who decimate song bird population, it's sparrows who hone in esp. on bluebirds. Sparrows, an invasive species, are genocidal toward the bluebird.

Train your cat to kill sparrows.

Catch sparrows, eat sparrows, make sparrow pie. Send the species back to england.

NY Times 5/14/14

The Truth About Sparrows

Private Lives: Personal essays on the news of the world and the news of our lives.

Ever since my mother joined the North American Bluebird Society, or NABS, she’s had it out for the English house sparrow — a bird that, when it isn’t devouring butterflies and yellow flowers, is pecking out the brains of bluebird mothers, dumping their lifeless bodies in the grass and then throwing their children out to die.

“Imagine if you had a neighbor like that,” Mom once said to me. “What would you do?”

I didn’t have a good answer. One afternoon in the spring of 1985, when I was 11, I came home from school and discovered our yard bristling with traps. They were so-called “no kill” boxes, mounted on steel poles that jutted from the ground like little gun towers. Mom would bait the traps with millet and cracked corn. Any birds that came to investigate found themselves forcibly detained. If they were “good” birds — cardinals, chickadees, robins — she planned to release them. If they were sparrows, however, they’d meet a different fate.

“Think of them like feathered sharks,” my mother said.

“Right,” I said. But I lacked imagination. They just looked like birds to me.

English house sparrows were first brought to New York around 1850. At the time, the city was facing a serious quandary: The snow-white linden moth was defoliating Manhattan Island, devouring its fruit trees and its leafy elms. City planners hoped that the sparrows would see the linden moth larvae as an all-you-can-eat buffet. And they did. But they also had a taste for other things: Sparrows devoured vital crops, stole the nests of native birds and flourished in urban habitats, slaughtering weaker species. By the 1980s America’s indigenous bluebird population was in steep decline.

Attending weekly NABS meetings, Mom began to network with other birders. She came to see the sparrow for what it really was: a predator, a home-wrecker, a blight on the essential fabric of the American ecosystem. While it wasn’t realistic to think that she could single-handedly turn back the invading hordes, she hoped, at least, to clear them from our yard in McLean, Va., and to create what NABS referred to as a “trail,” a series of nesting boxes where bluebirds could lay tiny, turquoise eggs and safely fledge delicate chicks.

After a week of trapping, our garage overflowed with sparrows in various improvised cages. Catching them had been easy. Disposing of them was proving more complicated. Mom considered driving them to a distant park, but this seemed like throwing garbage over the back fence. After some research, she decided that asphyxiation was the most humane option.

“Sweetie,” she said one afternoon. “Can you help me with something?”

I followed her into the garage where she handed me a black plastic bag for yard debris.

“Hold this open,” she said.

“What are we doing?” I asked. The air of the garage was alive with song; the sparrows’ voices formed a bright tangle of sound.

“With an invasive species,” Mom said, “you reach a tipping point.” She lowered several cages into the bag. “Do you know what that is?”

“No,” I said.

“It’s a place that you don’t come back from.”

She opened the garage door and started the car. Then she took the bag from me and clenched one end over the tailpipe. It inflated like a balloon. The birds fought and protested but they didn’t die. We gave them a minute, and then, several minutes more. Periodically, Mom would open the bag to find sparrows staring back at her, their beaks hanging open.

“Jesus,” she said. The enemy was strong.

Suddenly, my dad was standing beside us. “What are you doing?” he said. “You’ll give them black lung!”

“They won’t die,” my mom said. “They’re supposed to die.”

“It’s a diesel!” he said, pointing to the car. “You’re just going to piss them off.”

He was right. A diesel engine didn’t generate enough carbon monoxide to asphyxiate the birds. But, for Mom, this was merely a setback. There were plenty of cars in the world that ran on gasoline. The trick was getting your hands on one.

Mom began to bring The Bird Bag with her when we ran errands. It seemed to be always emerging from the trunk of our sedan. It would appear in the parking lot of Safeway as we waited to help some elderly shopper with her groceries — a good deed, in exchange for one small favor. When I stayed overnight at a friend’s house, Mom often showed up early to collect me. She’d knock on the door, say the usual hellos, and then ask to borrow a car. “I’ll just need it for a minute. Maybe less.”

Her request was usually met with confusion. But this was to be expected. Each conversation was an opportunity for education. People didn’t know about sparrows. They saw cute little birds eating bread on the sidewalk; they didn’t see the urgency, the danger.

I remember once she arrived with The Bird Bag in the middle of a birthday party. My friend’s sister was turning 5 and we’d been celebrating in the backyard with ice cream and cake. “Hi,” my mother called. She’d come to collect me and I could see the black bag clutched in one hand. “Can I get some help?”

I’m not sure how everybody ended up in the driveway. My friend’s mother stood nearby, frowning, somehow unable to say “no,” as little girls in smocked dresses and pointed party hats crowded around Mom and the tailpipe of a hulking Chevrolet. The sparrows got loose inside the bag and, as it inflated, I saw the shapes of their wings beating against the plastic. They struggled for a moment, and then were still.

In the almost 30 years that my mother has been a NABS member, the bluebird population has rebounded, not just in McLean, but nationwide. Today, when the occasional sparrow blunders into one of the traps in my parents’ yard, it’s more of an anomaly — and it doesn’t end up in The Bird Bag. Mom has perfected her technique. Now, she uses a carving knife and cutting board, at her leisure, in the privacy of her own kitchen. Afterward, she feeds the sparrows’ bodies to the foxes in the woods, laying them in a special metal tube that my dad calls “the altar.”

When I was young, when the cages were new, I’d sneak into the garage and liberate a few birds at a time — not enough to raise suspicions, but enough to believe that I’d helped another creature. Over the years, however, my feelings have become more complex. While I may not agree with my mother’s methods, I admire her will. When I go home and walk her trail, I look inside the nesting boxes and see clutches of fragile eggs, families of hungry fledglings. She is these bluebirds’ protector. She is their mother, too.

Peyton Marshall is the author of the forthcoming novel “Goodhouse.”

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