In the late 19th century, an interloper was committing thievery across Michigan.
Glimpsed now here, now there, the miscreant evaded capture, flitting away. Finally in the late 1880s the state responded to residents’ outrage and levied a bounty on the culprit’s head.
Its tiny, fluffy head: the offender was the English or house sparrow.
“This detestable bird is an imported resident,” said Charles Chapman in his 1881 “History of Washtenaw County.” The English sparrow had been introduced in Brooklyn in 1852 in the hope that it would eat harmful insects. It quickly spread across the continent. Wikipedia notes that today it is the world’s most widely distributed wild bird.
Chapman continued: “A few pair first made their appearance here in 1873; the streets of Ann Arbor are now overrun with them, and they are gradually making their way to the country. Wherever they locate they drive out the martin, blue-bird, swallows … They are a seed-eating bird, and in portions of Europe do great damage to the crops of the farmer.”
In an early 20th-century edition of the Michigan Agricultural College [Michigan State University] “Quarterly Bulletin,” zoological instructor Allen Conger echoed Chapman’s disapproval: “The English Sparrow was deliberately introduced into this state in the years 1875-76 by the release of a few pairs of birds at Jackson and Owosso. It is significant to note that just ten years later the Legislature deemed it necessary to pass a bill authorizing bounties on English Sparrows … [T]he state has … attempted by various bounty measures to hold in check this feathered alien …”
Conger continued: “Some years ago every attempt at sparrow control met with a storm of indignant protest from well-meaning but misinformed bird protectionists. Today the status of the English Sparrow is so clearly defined that not even the most ardent bird lover will argue against any measure which tends to reduce the numbers of this relentless enemy of native song birds.” Conger spoke in defense of “[t]he average citizen, wearied by the Sparrow’s incessant chirping and filthy habits.”
“Many persons have a strong prejudice against the English sparrow, without knowing why,” wrote Michigan Audubon Society secretary and treasurer Jefferson Butler, defending the bird in his 1907 book “The History, Work & Aims of the Michigan Audubon Society.”
Butler continued: “Who can look at this bird with the temperature about the zero mark, hopping through the snow and chirping as happily as though it were a day in June, and say they despise it? They give cheer to many and brighten the lives of the disheartened and the ill, and afford amusement and inspiration to countless children.”
One June day in 1889, those children loaded their firearms.
“The boys can now depopulate the ornithological part of the county just as rapidly as they choose,” stated the Aug. 2, 1889 Ann Arbor Argus, “and realize from $1.50 to $3.00 per day [$35 to $70 today] and thus deplete the county treasury. We append the law, which it will be seen, is explicit in its provisions. It took effect June 16, and provides that:
… [E]very person, being an inhabitant of this state, who shall kill an English sparrow in any organized township, village or city in this state shall be entitled to receive a bounty of three cents for each sparrow thus killed, to be allowed and paid in the manner hereinafter provided.
Every person applying for such bounty shall take such sparrow, or the head thereof, in lots of not less than ten, to the clerk of the township, village or city within which such sparrow shall have been killed, who shall thereupon decide upon such application, and if satisfied of the correctness of such claim, shall issue a certificate stating the amount of bounty to which such applicant is entitled and deliver the same to said applicant, and shall destroy the heads of such sparrows.
Such certificate may be presented by the claimant or his agent to the county clerk of the county in which such sparrow or sparrows have been killed, who shall thereupon draw a warrant for the amount on the treasurer of said county, and said treasurer shall, upon presentation of said warrant, pay the same from the general or contingent fund of said county.”
Local boys responded. On Aug. 16, 1889 the Argus reported, “City clerk Bach issued the first certificate Monday to Bert Ruthruff for thirty-five sparrows, the bounty amounting to $1.05. Another applicant for bounty killed 108. One Ypsilanti boy is said to have a collection of 900 sparrow heads.” This apocryphal boy went unremarked in the contemporaneous Ypsilanti Commercial, which unlike the Argus did not comment on the ongoing sparrow slaughter.
The Argus continued: “Over in Saline a large number of orders from surrounding towns are coming in. Deputy Clerk Brown refused to draw any warrants on the treasurer Monday, wishing to wait until the supervisors meet. But the law is imperative in its terms and it looks as if the boys [will] get their money. City clerk Bach will keep a sharp lookout for robins’ heads and if any boy is caught killing robins he will be fined $5. Robins and sparrows are two different birds, the one to be fostered and protected, the other to be exterminated.”
Subsequent issues of the paper noted the rising totals of sparrows killed, which climbed to 1,426 by the end of August, though not without incident. “While watching for sparrows last Sunday morning,” stated the Aug. 23 Argus, “Frank Hoelzle, of Washington Street, shot himself in the foot with his Flobert. He is not seriously hurt.”
The Flobert was a cheap rifle that shot absurdly truncated shells. The 1902 Sears, Roebuck catalog advertised the gun, with reservations. The catalog listing reads, “NOTE—WE DO NOT RECOMMEND NOR GUARANTEE FLOBERT RIFLES. Buy a good rifle. It will pay in the end.” Caveat or no, Sears sold the Flobert for $1.60 [$40 today]. Genuine Winchester and Remington rifles in the same catalog sold for prices ranging from $3.75 to $17.82 [$92 to $440 today].
As the Floberts fired, Ann Arbor homes suffered damage. The tinkle of broken glass and the danger to passersby prompted the Argus to issue a warning on Aug. 30:
The use of firearms in the city is prohibited by ordinance and sparrows within the city limits cannot be shot with them without subjecting the shooter to [a] $5 fine. Marshal Walsh will enforce the ordinance by arresting guilty parties. The enforcement of the ordinance has been made imperative by the carelessness and destructiveness of those who have been using guns. Several persons have narrowly escaped being killed.
The paper continued: “Four dead robins were picked up on State Street one day this week and the tame squirrels were being killed off. One boy shot twenty chippy birds [chipping sparrows]. The boys became so bold that they were going around other people’s houses firing at roofs, etc. Many people complain of broken windows.”
The sparrow bounty was repealed in 1901, but reinstated a few years later. “The one thousandth sparrow order was issued this morning … County Treasurer Luick has paid out $2,100,” noted the Aug. 27, 1907 Ypsilanti Daily Press. In subsequent decades, the zest for killing sparrows for meager pennies waned, and the bird became an ordinary member of the local fauna.
However, the sparrow bounty remained valid in Michigan law. A similarly anachronistic law continued to permit Michiganders to break up someone else’s logjam in a river, in order to facilitate one’s own waterborne log transportation. Yet another law mandated that every log placed in a river must bear its owner’s log mark, similar to a cattle brand.
Those fearful of the state appearing antiquated due to cobwebbed yet still-valid laws can rest assured that Michigan abolished them years ago.
Well, a few years, anyways: Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm repealed the log laws, other outdated provisions, and the long-standing English sparrow bounty – in the year 2000.
This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.
The previous column offered up the single most baffling item at the author’s recent Heritage Festival presentation. This proved to be scant challenge to Chronicle readers ABC, Al Feldt, Dave, Carol Fast, and TJ. It seemed as though the entire city of Ann Arbor recognized this item, correctly, as an egg cup.
Given the unanticipated ease of guessing that Mystery Artifact, this time we’re confronted with an extremely obscure specialized tool. Can you guess what this might have been used for? Take a chance and good luck!
Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an idea for a column? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.