The Unintended Consequences Of Mr. Andrew Erkenbrecher

Andrew Erkenbrecher did not live to see his imported English sparrows take over downtown Cincinnati in the early 1900s.
Andrew Erkenbrecher did not live to see his imported English sparrows take over downtown Cincinnati in the early 1900s.

Photograph from Cincinnati Past And Present, or, Its Industrial History As Exhibited In The Life-Labors Of Its Leading Men, published 1872; Digitized by the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County; Image extracted from PDF by Greg Hand

In 1869, Cincinnati demanded sparrows. Lots of sparrows.

“It has been suggested that the cheapest and surest way for Cincinnati to protect her shade trees from the plague of the caterpillar will be to adopt the plan pursued in New York and other Eastern cities‒i.e., procure, and provide for, a large lot of English sparrows.”

This appeal from the Cincinnati Gazette [28 April 1869] led to a petition addressed to city council, and another appeal from the same newspaper on May 5:

“Who among our horticulturalists will become a public benefactor by introducing the sparrow.”

The next day, a letter from a correspondent signed only “M” informed the readers of the Gazette that their benefactor was already at work:

“Allow me to say that the experiment has already been made by Mr. [Andrew] Erkenbrecher, Mr. [Max] Wocher and a few other liberal and public spirited men, thus far in a small way, and proved itself a success as regards domesticating and keeping the little pets with us in all seasons.”

Andrew Erkenbrecher, who was almost single-handedly responsible for founding the Cincinnati Zoo, was a wealthy merchant whose fortune was built on the production and sale of laundry starch from a huge factory in St. Bernard. He was also the president of the Cincinnati chapter of the “Society for the Acclimatization of Birds.” This organization was dedicated to bringing European birds  to North America to “improve” the environment, in the sense of making America more like Europe.

Just 32 years later, Mr. Erkenbrecher’s sparrows had, so to speak, come home to roost. The Cincinnati Post [25 July 1901] reported just how common sparrows had become:

“The Cincinnati Society of Natural History has given sparrows considerable study, especially as they are about the only bird to be seen without going to wooded glades and flowered meadows.”

In other words, just three decades separated a Cincinnati in which there were no sparrows from a Cincinnati in which they were the only bird within the city limits. And they were appallingly abundant. The Cincinnati Enquirer [21 January 1901] reported:

“Perhaps the greatest attraction on Vine Street yesterday afternoon was the sparrows, of which there are more this year apparently that ever before. From Fourth to Sixth street on the west side, where the overhead wires are numerous, these pests form a cloud as they roost just overhead which seems to darken the sidewalk.”

Cartoon of cop on telephone wires, from Cincinnati Post, 1901
Cartoon of cop on telephone wires, from Cincinnati Post, 1901

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Pedestrians crossed to the east side of the street to avoid the noise and the spatter of bird poop. The city assigned seven police officers to blast away with shotguns at the little birds. That had some effect, but mostly in guests moving out of Vine Street hotels because of the night-time gunfire. One local inventor suggested a high-tech, for 1901, remedy:

” . . . one electrical genius thought he had solved it when he essayed to shock the feathered intruders to death. But they seemed to thrive on the death-dealing current, evidently mistaking it for a kind of electrical belt treatment designed to better their health.”

Other proposed solutions included fumigating the birds with clouds of sulfurous smoke, distributing poisoned grain, and importing yet another bird, namely sparrow hawks. The Enquirer blamed the wires:

“Wonder if it ever occurred to them to take down the wires and put them underground, where they ought to be.”

The Cincinnati Post [19 February 1901] ran a front-page editorial along with a delightful cartoon, offering to solve two problems at once:

“There are at least 30,000 superfluous cats in Cincinnati and 4,000,000 superfluous sparrows. Get the sparrows and the cats together and the problem is solved.”

The editorial was signed, respectfully, “Genius.”

Cincinnati’s sparrow population began to decline as the automobile took over, gradually replacing the horse. Manure had provided an abundant and year-round bounty of seeds for the sparrows and, well into the 1920s, Cincinnati had enough manure to satisfy a metropolis of sparrows.

Mr. Erkenbrecher died in 1885 and was laid to rest beneath a beautiful and quite impressive monument at Spring Grove Cemetery, where he had released some of his first imported sparrows. He did not live to see the real impact of his beloved birds.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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