When nativism is applied to sparrows
by Sue Holloway
Note: One photo is of a white-crowned sparrow, the other of an English, or "house" sparrow. One is considered precious, the other, a "pest." But they are all precious, in the eyes of God.
This species, introduced from England in 1850-51, is common on the East coast, and else- where. Introduced species can be controversial. They were renamed as "exotics" in Jimmy Carters time. This year, the category was redefined in an Executive Order, as "aliens."
Now, this "alien" sparrow had a baby nearly ready to fledge. The mama made a spectacular effort to lure the child out. First, she appeared on the ground, near the nest, feather-in-bill, hopping and chirping energetically.
Next, she flew to a branch, and beckoned with the feather, moving her head in an arcing motion, like a hitchhiker. Birds of several species flew into the yard and called out in supportive chorus, as the mom moved to the door of the birdhouse. She shook and shimmeyed, the feather fluttering wildly, as if to mesmerize the youngster into the fascinating outer world.
Although the action was unique, there are other documented incidents of the playful and interesting qualities of this species. Still, in the late 1870's, there were fights called "Sparrow Wars" among naturalists over the value of these birds. Elliot Coues, the first President of the American Ornithological Union (A.O.U.), made a potent statement against the English sparrow.
When this organization composed a model law for the protection of migratory birds, Coues explicitly excluded the English sparrow from protection. Today, as a result, house sparrows are designated as an "unprotected" bird in Maryland State Statutes, for example.
Naming birds has always been a rather arbitrary act even classification. For example, birding experts taking the fall migratory hawk counts in Connecticut, include the turkey vulture. But this bird was technically reclassified into the stork family a few years ago.
When you see these raptor-like birds floating on air, it seems nonsensical to conceptualize them as storks. In National Wildlife(2/94), the chairperson of the A.O.U. nomenclature committee acknowledged that after any change, someone is likely to question the decision as "stupid."
From the inception of the A.O.U. in 1886 to a century later, there was an 80% rate of name changes for the 700 birds North American birds listed. And that practice continues. In June of this year, a Book of the Month Club mailing advertised over 80 "new" species recently classified by the A.O.U., featured in a certain field guide to North American birds.
Taxonomist Hugh Boyd of England called naming birds a "game." While decisions involve facts, they depend ultimately on opinion, so it is "scarcely a scientific activity at all," Boyd concludes.
Today, there is another kind of naming, which refers to birthright and status. It is part of the politics of wildlife management. A plethora of terms -- exotic, alien, nonnative, nonindigenous, invasive -- refers to introduced species, implying a lack of right to protection.
Even children are being "educated" to think of the natural world as filled with aliens. In May, the childrens journal published by the National Wildlife Federation informed youngsters of over 4,500 species "of aliens now living in the United States." Such a focus could result in childrens exploring their landscapes, not with awe, but suspicion. In contrast, Rachel Carson recommended preserving a sense of wonder. Contemplating the beauty of the earth, Carson believed, can bestow strength and healing, and serve as an antidote to alienation.
What is "native," anyhow? In reality, creatures arrive in each particular landscape in a variety of ways. The cattle egret, for example, is not "native" to North America. This species apparently "blew in" from another continent. Still, it is listed -- and protected -- as a Special Concern species in Connecticut. Somehow our society has been able to celebrate the presence of this particular bird. But why this, and not others?
Any scientific "naming," including the status system in wildlife management, is not just straightforward. "As in all fields," the editors of National Wildlife (1994) concluded," the truth is elusive!" I think Rachel had it right. Somehow, we will sort it out more equitably and compassionately if we each can retain the capacity to recognize with wonder, the mysteries and enchantments of the creatures around us -- like our ingenuous sparrow.
Note: This op ed originally appeared in THE DAY, a daily newspaper in New London, CT. (Sunday, August 29, 1999). Reprinted with permission by THE DAY.
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