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 and along the Illinois River and along the Mississippi River north to southern Iowa. Its larger and more aggressive cousin, the House Sparrow, Passer domesticus, has spread throughout the United States.
It is difficult to tell them 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. His collaborator in releasing imported species of birds here, Mr. Kleinschmidt, is not as well known. 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.
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 the first mute swans to the park. It is taken from the Report of the Board of Improvement of Lafayette Park for 1874. 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.
The house for their accommodation 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 there without his mate. Once here, Willie tended to rule over the other residents of the lake, both temporary and permanent. Our lake is visited every year by Canadian Geese and Mallards on their annual migrations. A few become semi-permanent for a few months or years, joining assorted geese and ducks which are dropped off by persons unknown. The domestic geese seemed to annoy Willie more than the rest of the residents and he would push them 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 the geese, ducks and Willie. The dogs could could not get out of the lake bed and had to be rescued by the Humane Society.
Visitors to the park often ask us about its waterfowl, especially those ducks that ” .. .look like turkeys.” Here’s their story, plus a few more. In the fall of 2009, two Muscovy ducks were “dropped off” at the park. A family had raised them over the summer, but when they got larger and messier the parents decided to get rid of them. Muscovy ducks, especially the males, grow to ten or fifteen pounds. Abandoning your unwanted pets is not a good thing for the pets, or for the park! In the spring of 2010 our newly named Salt and Pepper had four ducklings, two females_Brownie and Nippy and two males_Oscar and Chocolate. Salt had made her nest inside the turtle sculpture at the playground, to the delight of the small visitors. Everyday, the family paraded to the lake and returned to the nest in the evening. Brownie, the small brown and white one, has been missing for a couple of months now. At first, we thought she was nesting, but but it only rakes 37 days for their eggs to hatch and it has been much longer than that. Salt laid numerous eggs inside a tree this spring. Five ducklings hatched out, but none survived. Sadly, there are no more Muscovites in the park. They have met their demise by either human, large dog’s or fox hands or paws. Muscovy ducks like to eat bugs. They especially love mosquitoes (yay!), fleas, worms, and beetles. When we were gardening in the park, they would line up to get the grubs we found as we dug in the dirt.
For more than twenty years a wonderful couple that lived on Park Avenue came to the park everyday to feed the ducks and geese. Domestic ducks, like the Pekins, are unable to fly and depend on us to provide them with food. There were Pekin ducks, Canada and African geese, miscellaneous wild ducks and Willy, the male swan. He wasn’t exactly a favorite of the Bells because he picked on the other birds, but everyone still loved him because he looked so regal on the lake. Al and Ethel Bell would take corn to the park every evening, rain or shine. When AI Bell passed away in 2000, Ethel continued to go to the park everyday. A kind neighbor, Sam Coleman, lent her a hand, carrying the food down to the lake and keeping her company. About a year later, Ethel also passed away. The Bells were long time supporters of Lafayette Square and were missed by many in the neighborhood. At a neighborhood meeting it was decided to put in place funding to continue care for the ducks as a tribute to the Bells. Care of the waterfowl continues to this day, with several residents now taking on the daily feeding of the ducks and swans. Our ducks, geese and swans make a lovely addition to the park. Next time you are walking past the lake, please take a moment to stop and visit them.
Please be aware that is cruel to “drop off”, or abandon, any domesticated animal even with the hope and expectation that the animal will be able to care for itself or be taken care of by others. This rarely happens and the ducks, geese, dogs and most other animals cared for by humans have forgotten how to care for themselves, especially in entirely new surroundings, and will suffer.