How cute! How nice! (How dumb!)
Editor's Introduction -- The introduction of the house sparrow into North America spawned an ecological disaster of classic dimensions, but students won't learn anything about this when they read the soft, cute, dumbed-down account given in Kendall/Hunt's Middle School Life Science (1991). Here is a short article -- originally published as a sidebar to a review of Middle School Life Science -- which tells how the writers of that book have turned the notorious history of the house sparrow into inane happy-talk.
from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1992

Mr. Sparrow, Our Perky Pal

William J. Bennetta

Among the follies in the "Ecosystems and Ecology" unit of Middle School Life Science, none seems stranger than the bungling of the story of the house sparrow in North America. If properly presented, that story can be fascinating and instructive. In Middle School Life Science, however, it is reduced to a queer, insipid note that seems to have no point. It is on page 66, under the headline "Not a Native":

The perky house sparrow is a familiar sight in most major American cities. These sparrows seem to be happiest [sic] when living by people; they prefer making their nests by occupied buildings. House sparrows who live in the cities seldom move more than a mile or two from their birthplace. However, sparrows who live in more rural areas may flock to nearby fields during the summer months.

House sparrows are not native to North America. They were brought over from Europe in the 1850s by farmers who wanted the birds to eat insects. Many immigrants welcomed this friendly [sic] reminder of home.

And what happened then? The writers seem unaware of the innumerable accounts that have appeared, during the past century, in both scientific and popular publications. Read, for example, P.A. Taverner's Birds of Western Canada, issued in 1926 by Canada's Bureau of Mines:

This bird . . . is one of our most undesirable importations from Europe. In spite of its obvious seed-eating habits, it was originally introduced as a caterpillar destroyer. It does, of course, like nearly all birds, sometimes eat caterpillars, but does not approximate in this direction the capacity of the birds it has displaced. . . . [It] drives other birds away by three methods: monopolizing the food supply; occupying their nesting places; and by pugnacious and bulldozing habits. . . . Today one of the most important problems in architectural offices is to design satisfactory detail that will not harbour Sparrows, whose dirt disfigures the most careful design and disintegrates the material of which the building is composed. . . . Without doubt the introduction of the House Sparrow into America was a mistake. It was known in its original home as a rather undesirable species and unfitted for the work it was brought [to North America] to perform. [Here], removed from the natural checks that kept it under control, it has multiplied beyond all reason . . . .

Taverner offered those remarks some 75 years after house sparrows first were released in New York City. In that span of time the house sparrow had spread throughout the continent, had disrupted many indigenous populations of birds, and had become (in human terms) a ubiquitous pest. For writers who really want to elucidate ecology, the history of the house sparrow furnishes rich material indeed, but the writers of Middle School Life Science merely offer the student some fluff about joyful immigrants and happy, anthropomorphic birds. For an excellent, detailed account of the house-sparrow fiasco, readers may consult Eugene Kinkead's article in The New Yorker, 22 May 1978.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


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