1870 – The Bird That Stayed In Lafayette Square

The Missouri Audubon Society informs us that there are 434 identified species of birds in the state. Did you know that one had a range limited to Lafayette Park in 1870, and has migrated no farther than 150 miles in the 150 years since?

I’m referring to what our local historian Tom Keay calls “Lafayette Square’s neighborhood bird”, the Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus). This stay-at-home fellow was introduced to Lafayette Park by German-Americans who missed their more familiar birds of home. Carl Daenzer, noted newspaper editor, imported the sparrows along with various finches and linnets. He and a small group of  bird lovers released them into what was St. Louis’ only city park on April 25, 1870. The 20 tree sparrows were the only birds of the bunch that formed a breeding community.

The resulting population might have established a broader base but for the invasion of house sparrows into the area in 1878. More aggressive and adaptable, the house sparrow outcompetes its Eurasian cousin for habitat, limiting the range of the tree sparrow to parks, farms and rural woods. The total North American population is limited to about 15,000 individuals clustered within a tight radius of St Louis, western Illinois, and southeast Iowa.

North American Distribution of the Eurasian tree sparrow. USGS Breed Birding Survey – 2012

Lafayette Square’s avian mascot lives up to 4 years, builds haphazard nests in niches found in stone and trees, and hops around eating seeds, grains, and insects from the ground. A mating pair produces a clutch of 4-5 eggs which hatch within two weeks of laying.

So in a world thick with urban sparrows, like the thousands that loudly inhabit the euonymus bushes beside the rolling gate of the WireWorks apartments, how can you tell one of our own homebody sparrows from the more generic ones? Here to help, an easy chart.

Look for the distinctive chocolate scalp and black spot in the center of the tree sparrow’s cheek. And remember, as the old Czech adage goes, “A sparrow in the fist is better than a pigeon on the roof”.

Science aside, it’s interesting that the Eurasian tree sparrows landed here and stayed. Perhaps they simply fell in love with the neighborhood like the rest of us.

Thanks to my research sources, including:

Patuxent Wildlife Research Center for its North American Breeding Bird Survey – mbr-purc.usgc.gov

Missouri Conservationist; May, 2003; Jim Jackson for citation on Daenzer and number of birds in original release. https://web.archive.org/web/20100528082606/http://www.mdc.mo.gov/conmag/2003/05/50.htm

Washington University’s Randy Korotev and his Guide For Birders – winss.wustl.edu October 2006

Missouri Audubon Society – mobirds.org

Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds – allaboutbirds.org

Tags: , , , ,