Eurasian Tree Sparrow
The Eurasian Tree Sparrow was brought to North America by two St. Louis nature lovers who released them, along with several other species of birds, in Lafayette Park on April 25, 1870.
A concise account of their arrival and fate is found in an article published in the “Twentieth Annual Report” of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 1909, by Otto Widmann. An excerpt from that article follows:
“The history of this exclusively St. Louisan species is interesting. During the first ten years after the Civil War it was quite a fad among nature-lovers in the United States to attempt the acclimatization of European singing birds; well- meaning persons in all parts of the country imported or bought them from bird dealers and set them free, but, unfortunately, with very poor results as far as St. Louis is concerned. Among a lot of different kinds of birds, such as Chaffinches,, Bullfinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and siskin, bought by Messers Carl Daenzer and Kleinschmidt, there were twenty European Tree Sparrows . All these birds were liberated in Lafayette Park on April 25, 1870. After a few days all had left the park and nothing was seen of any of them, though sometimes unauthenticated reports came in that this or that bird had been seen at such and such place. The Tree Sparrows were the only ones found to have taken root in the city, for in the summer of the following year it was discovered that they were quite at home in the vicinity of breweries in the southern part of the city. From that time on their future seemed to be secure; they had no trouble in finding food and nesting sites, were well liked, and spread farther from year to year. But in the meantime their larger cousins, the House Sparrows, which had made their original start from the center of town, and had become more and more abundant, began to invade the domaine of the Tree Sparrow, driving them out of their nesting and roosting places , thereby forcing them farther and farther toward the outskirts of the city. In 1878 the invasion of of the House Sparrow and expulsion of the Tree Sparrow reached the old city limits at Keokuk Street…. but it did not stop there…. until at present there are very few places in the city where the Tree Sparrow survives.”
Today, the European, or Eurasian, Tree Sparrow, Passer montanus, is found only in St. Louis, along the Illinois River, and along the Mississippi River north to southern Iowa. Its larger and more aggressive cousin, the House Sparrow, Passer domesticus, also an introduced species, has spread throughout the United States.
It is difficult to tell the two species apart. Both have the same reddish brown black- streaked back. The adult male House Sparrow has a larger black spot on its chin and throat than does the male Tree Sparrow but the Tree Sparrow has a distinguishing mark, a black round spot on the side of its head surrounded by a white cheek.
Carl Daenzer is well known today figure in St. Louis history. Daenzer was a prominent German-American editor and publisher in St. Louis. He took a leading part in the German revolution of 1848 and, having been condemned to death, fled to America. He reached St.Louis in 1851 and became assistant editor of The Anzieger. He started the Westliche Post in 1857 and later acquired The Anzieger which eventually merged with the Westliche Post. He is one of the three German-American editors memorialized by the monument located in the Compton Hill Water Tower Park which contains The Naked Truth statue, symbolizing ”Truth” and the enlightenment of Germany and the United States. His collaborator in releasing imported species of birds here, Mr. Kleinschmidt, is not as well known.
Note: In 2010, the National Wildlife Federation designated Lafayette Park as a Certified Wildlife Nabitat.
“During the year 1872 a pair of white swans was presented to the park by Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, through our former superintendent, Mr. M. G. Kern. They were placed on the lake, and a house for their accommodation was constructed on the island in the lake. They multiplied during the last and present years, and at this time are eight in number.”
So reads the description of the arrival of another introduced species at Lafayette Park, the first Mute Swans, Cygnus olor. It is taken from the Report of the Board of Improvement of Lafayette Park for 1874. Mute Swans lived on the lake for many years and they are seen in photographs of the lake and swan boats which carried visitors around the lake.
A house was built for their accommodation, and in the style of the era it was an elegant affair with a slate roof, spires, gothic doorways, and other ornaments. A replica was constructed by residents of Lafayette Square and placed on the island in the 1990s.
In the mid-1980s, Willie the Swan, a male, was brought to the lake by neighbors who acquired him when Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, ‘deaccessioned’ him because he had lost his mate. It was believed that Willie would become too aggressive toward the other swans at Busch Gardens without his mate.
Once here, Willie tended to rule over the other residents of the lake, which is home to both migratory and residential waterfowl, including Canada Geese, Branta canadensis, and Mallard ducks, Anas platyrhynchos. Willie wasn’t good at sharing and would push his waterfowl neighbors around the lake or even up on the banks fairly often.
A couple living in the neighborhood, Ethel and Al Bell, took charge of feeding the domestic geese and ducks on a daily basis and were quite upset by Willie’s behavior when he was in one of his aggressive moods. In the winter of 2000, while the lake was undergoing repairs and the water level was very low, dogs got into the lake bed and killed all the waterfowl, including Willie. The dogs could could not get out of the lake bed and had to be rescued by the Humane Society.
Currently, Lafayette Park Lake is home to three female Mute Swans. The girls tend to keep to themselves much of the time, and are much less aggressive to birds and human neighbors alike than Willie. Each spring, our swans join the resident geese and ducks in building nests and laying eggs, but without a male at hand the eggs are not fertilized and, as such, never develop into cygnets.