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The Eurasian Tree Sparrow

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Published on: May. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 15, 2010

A lady stopped me at the August A. Busch Conservation Area, a favorite St. Louis birding spot. With a smile, but seemingly in a hurry, she asked, "Could I find a Eurasian tree sparrow in this area?"

"I'm sorry, madam, it's not found here. But if you have a map of the St. Louis area, I'd be glad to point out some likely locations."

With this her smile suddenly faded. "Darn it, I wanted to get it on my life list, but a map won't help now. I've got to fly out of Lambert in two hours."

List-keeping birders can be as zealous as sportsmen who pursue their furred, feathered or finny game. In any field of outdoors recreation, participants are eager to meet new challenges. Birders find it particularly challenging to identify and list species found only in certain regions. The Eurasian tree sparrow is a unique example of such a species.

Its presence in Missouri dates back to shortly after the Civil War. At that time it was a fad among nature enthusiasts to import nightingales, chaffinches, bullfinches and other songbirds from Europe. This was done in the false hope that new birds might help control insect pests, but was also an excuse among nostalgic immigrants who wanted to see birds "from the old country." Most of these introductions failed, but a few, including the pesky starling, brought to Americain 1890, succeeded.

This article focuses on the relationship between two earlier introductions of Old World finches. One was the now ubiquitous house or English sparrow. The other was its closest relative, the Eurasian tree sparrow. Carl Daenzer imported some of the latter from Germany and released them in Lafayette Park, St Louis, on April 25th, 1870. At that time, house sparrows, which were initially released in New York City, were already spreading westward and into St. Louis.

Otto Widmann, a pharmacist who was also Missouri's earliest birder, followed the St. Louis area spread of both species through the late 1800s. In 1909, he wrote the following about what were then known as European tree sparrows. "But in the meantime their larger cousins, the House Sparrows, which made their original start from the center of town and had become more and more abundant, began to invade the domain of the European Tree Sparrows, driving them out of their nesting and roosting places, thereby forcing them farther and farther toward the

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