It is often said that history is written by the victors (“Speciesists,” cry the inchworms, “we thread the trees but no one reads!”). It is hard to know, however, who the victor might be in the case of the sparrow migration. While accounts in the document (Excerpt of the Source of the English Sparrow, Manuscript and Notes for a History of the Brooklyn Institute, see previous post) include discrepancies in the details on the introduction of the sparrows into Brooklyn, they all converge in the Greenwood Cemetery, where the contentious tale of the sparrow begins.
Sparrow. Involuntary immigrant. An experiment. A solution. A pest. An outlaw. Though there were some previous attempts made, as the document details, to integrate the sparrow into the local ecosystem, the release of the sparrows into the Greenwood Cemetery was the first liberation en masse, and the first nesting place of the birds. It is perhaps, of no great surprise then, that the sparrows were doomed to the limens of North American ornithology, as figures occupying graveyards and their surrounds, in Western art and literature, often symbolize those shunned or otherwise unable to live among so-called normal society.
The sparrows, scavengers by nature, thriving on the refuse of human activity, spread quickly, greatly outnumbering (and often chasing off) native birds. The sparrows, like bedbugs and mice, came to be regarded as pests, and many state and local governments across the United States would offer a few cents a head for the extermination of the ubiquitous bird, an offer frequently taken up by children in pursuit for candy money.
These schemes did little to curb the sparrow population, which only began to wane after the introduction of automobile, decreasing the amount of horse droppings that had been the sparrow’s food source.
Needless to say, the sparrows have remained, and do indeed sing of their histories, whether we understand their version or not. To try to listen, and perhaps comprehend the interwoven stories of human and animal antagonisms and interventions, the layered voices of tragedies and travails, I went to the Greenwood Cemetery, accompanied by writer/musician/sound artist Lindsay Cuff. This is what we heard.