In the Archives: Fluffy Sparrow Heads

"... amusement and inspiration to countless children."

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.


The feeble Flobert rifle was dissed by the catalog house selling it.

“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.

Mystery Artifact

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


  1. By Dave
    September 9, 2010 at 8:11 am | permalink

    The mystery artifact appears to be an electric heating tool, for leather work or steaming the brim of a mans or ladies hat.

  2. By Laura Bien
    September 9, 2010 at 8:38 am | permalink

    Interesting guess Dave…we shall see. :)

  3. By JR Roberts
    September 9, 2010 at 8:38 am | permalink

    The mystery artifact is just a tacking iron for dry mount photo tissue (essentially paper impregnated with hot-melt glue). You’d use this to heat, and thereby hold, the tissue in place on the back of your photo; trim them both at the same time; position the photo on matte board; tack the tissue onto the board; then put the assembly in a dry mount press, which would heat the glue in the tissue, and flatten the photo at the same time. That one looks like the one i gave Kiwanis last year.

  4. By JR Roberts
    September 9, 2010 at 9:45 am | permalink

    ps… This was also handy for hot waxing cross country skis.

  5. By Dave
    September 9, 2010 at 10:21 am | permalink

    I love these series of articles.

  6. By sally m
    September 9, 2010 at 10:28 am | permalink

    And people still hate those sparrows. An otherwise mild-mannered woman of my acquaintance told me when they nest in her eaves, she smashes their eggs. Her friend replied: “Well I wait until the babies are born and wring their little necks.”

  7. September 9, 2010 at 11:32 am | permalink

    The house sparrow population has dropped 90% in British cities in the last few years. In Michigan the passenger pigeon disappeared at the same time that the sparrow appeared, but there doesn’t seem to be a connection that I can find.

    I used to have an iron just like the one in your photo. I used it for mounting 35mm slides. I don’t know if that was its original function.

  8. September 9, 2010 at 1:23 pm | permalink

    Yup, I gave away a dry mount iron like that a few years ago too.

    I’d like to hear from local ornithologists about the English sparrow population. I haven’t seen them around my bird feeder lately.

  9. By George Hammond
    September 9, 2010 at 2:08 pm | permalink

    Birds of Washtenaw County, by Kielb, Swales, and Wolinski, reported that “House Sparrows” (aka English Sparrows, aka Passer domesticus) were abundant in the County as of 1992, with an estimated 40,000 pairs breeding in Ann Arbor alone.

    I don’t have any more specific local information, but eBird [link] and All About Birds [link] both report that the species is still abundant across North America, Central America,and temperate South America.

    This species displaces local insect-eating birds like purple martins and bluebirds from their nest cavities, so I think it’s a pest that we would be better off without.

    It’s a bad idea to let any birds nest in your eaves. They are likely to bring biting mites with them which can disperse into your house when the birds leave.

  10. By Steve Borgsdorf
    September 9, 2010 at 2:21 pm | permalink

    Wikipedia? Yikes. Please resist the temptation to cite this tragedy-of-the-commons fauxcyclopedia.

  11. By Barbara
    September 9, 2010 at 2:52 pm | permalink

    Our English sparrows went away (as in we didn’t see them at our feeders) for several years when West Nile Virus first came to the area. They’re back now, but seem to be not quite as abundant.

  12. By Laura Bien
    September 9, 2010 at 3:26 pm | permalink

    JR Roberts: Hmm, very detailed answer. :) The ski-waxing note is interesting.

  13. By Laura Bien
    September 9, 2010 at 3:27 pm | permalink

    Dave: Thank you for your nice comment. If you have an idea for a column, by all means please email me at ypsidixit at gmail. :)

  14. By Laura Bien
    September 9, 2010 at 3:28 pm | permalink

    Sally M: I did read, while researching this article, that these sparrows allegedly displace other birds (bluebirds) and take over their nests in the springtime.

  15. By Laura Bien
    September 9, 2010 at 3:30 pm | permalink

    Jim Rees: Yes, you are right; the passenger pigeon was disappearing from Michigan in the late 19th century, though there was an alleged “sighting” (actually, hearing), deep in the wilds of the UP as late as the 1930s. They once darkened Michigan skies and even gave several locations their name (Pigeon, MI).

  16. By Laura Bien
    September 9, 2010 at 3:32 pm | permalink

    Vivienne: Hmm, that is odd. We had one paid raise 3 sets of chicks in the old birdhouse hung in our back garden. And they are all over our seeding plants. I’ll have to check this winter, but so far as anecdotal data goes, they seem pretty abundant as usual ’round our parts.

  17. By Laura Bien
    September 9, 2010 at 3:36 pm | permalink

    George Hammond: Good info; thank you. Did not know about the mites, yikes.

  18. By Laura Bien
    September 9, 2010 at 3:40 pm | permalink

    Steve Bordgsdorf: Your point is well taken and I approach Wikipedia with caution; some articles are quite poorly written/researched. However, the fact I wished to quote from the sparrow entry was difficult to reword, so I wanted to make sure I attributed it properly so that I would not plagiarize.

    We do have a complete set of the 1961 Encyclopedia Britannica which is a treasure and a paragon of top-notch essay writing. It is a pleasure to read just to see how they constructed their essays for the various entries. And just fun to browse through on a rainy day, complete with “colour plates.”

  19. By Laura Bien
    September 9, 2010 at 3:43 pm | permalink

    Barbara: Hmm, you are the second person to opine that the sparrow populations might be fluctuating. I wonder if there is an ornithologist in the wings, so to speak, who could nail down this question for us. I believe Ann Arbor has a city ornithologist, does it not?

  20. By Laura Bien
    September 9, 2010 at 3:59 pm | permalink

    …and the highly respected ornithologist and author Mike Kielb as well.

  21. September 9, 2010 at 7:56 pm | permalink

    Re 16: so you are cultivating them. I don’t use birdseed that brings them and I seem to have mostly finches, which is a good thing. The goldies certainly pay well for the little pecks they leave on things in my vegetable garden.

  22. By Laura Bien
    September 9, 2010 at 9:55 pm | permalink

    Vivienne: Oh, not so much cultivating them, really; we were just interested to observe them raising a family, and did not interfere. All the birds are welcome to our winter birdseed so far as I’m concerned. I’m not native here myself so I can hardly protest a sparrow. :)

  23. September 9, 2010 at 10:01 pm | permalink

    If the City still had a bounty my cat would be earning his keep. And judging by what he brings home, I’d say the Ann Arbor sparrow population is still quite healthy.

  24. By Laura Bien
    September 9, 2010 at 11:05 pm | permalink

    Jim Rees: A whole cloud of sparrows was clustered among our front yard raised beds the other day, feasting on the various flower seeds. Open the front door and a great sound like a sail flapping in the wind went up as they flurried en masse into the nearest tree.

  25. By George Hammond
    September 10, 2010 at 12:41 pm | permalink

    Just a reminder, we have a several local species that resemble House sparrows in general size and habits. Along with the exotic and invasive House Sparrow, we now have the House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus), which is native to Mexico and the Southwest US, was introduced to the East Coast in the last century, and now was spread across the country. These have reddish heads. There are also about a dozen native sparrow species found in Washtenaw County. Most are habitat specialists that don’t come into town much, but several species are frequent in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. All of which is just to say that not all the sparrows you seen in town are House Sparrows.

    Dea Armstrong is the ornithologist who works for the City’s Natural Area Preservation unit. I’ve sent her a message inviting her to take a look.

  26. By jeff reed
    September 10, 2010 at 4:24 pm | permalink

    Tangent for the Editors

    Wikipedia is NOT an authoritative resource. Its content is not verifiably reviewed and its authors are not verifiably vetted. There is nothing truly authoritative about it. While it’s true the site contains factual information, any facts are a byproduct of chance and must be ignored for journalistic purposes.

    I realize the author of this article referred to Wikipedia to support a very minor piece of information, which may ultimately be factual, but doing so detracts from the author’s credibility and that of the Chronicle. Reputation is everything and Wikipedia erodes journalistic reputations.

    Unfortunately, this is the very low standard that passes for journalism these days. Chronicle: I realize your budget is low, but that’s no excuse to give reader’s any reason — however minuscule — to doubt the stories you produce.

  27. By Deaver Armstrong
    September 11, 2010 at 10:16 pm | permalink

    Some information and thoughts about House Sparrows:

    Between Endangered Species laws and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (16U.S.C. 703-712), all species except the House Sparrow, feral pigeon, European starling, and non-migratory game birds like pheasants, gray partridge, and sage grouse, are currently “protected”.

    The Migratory Bird Treaty Act says in part:

    “Unless and except as permitted by regulations, …it shall be unlawful at any time, by any means, or in any manner…to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, …possess, offer for sale, sell, …purchase, import…any migratory bird, any part, nest, or eggs of any such bird…”


    The definition of a “migratory bird” includes those species that are not in a scientific sense, “migratory” but usually not birds that have been introduced to the US.

    As George mentioned, it is important that a person who plans to “take” any species of unprotected bird be able to tell the difference between a protected species and one that is unprotected. This isn’t always as easy as it seems. If a person would have some “problem” with birds, calling a pest control company that is likely have all the proper federal permits would probably be better than harming the birds in some way. Or you could call your local city ornithologist or a birdwatcher friend for an identification confirmation.
    Some would definitely argue that bird like House Sparrows or European Starlings are worth leaving alone. It is true that folks can learn a great deal about birds by observing any of the unprotected species, especially if that is all the types of birds that you have to observe.

    House Sparrows are declining in numbers both in Michigan alone, the US and in Europe, overall relative to 1966 levels.
    From: USGS Breeding Bird Survey data trends [link]

    House Sparrows are abundant in urban areas and they do compete with native species for resources, most obviously nesting sites like Blue Bird/Tree Swallow boxes or tree cavities or Cliff Swallow nests (check out the House Sparrows that take over the Cliff Swallow nests under the east side of the large bridge at Gallup Park).

    Hope this covers some of the things you were wondering about.

    Deaver D. Armstrong
    Natural Area Preservation
    City of Ann Arbor
    1831 Traver Rd.
    Ann Arbor, MI 48105

  28. By Laura Bien
    September 13, 2010 at 4:07 pm | permalink

    Jeff Reed: Thank you for your comment; your point is well taken. This sparrow distribution fact is widely mentioned. The manner in which I worded it to best fit in the piece was similar to the way it was worded in Wikipedia. I cited that as a source so that readers would not think I were plagiarizing.

    Wikipedia articles are all over the map as you know. Some are good and some deplorable. The sparrow article seemed reliable. Have you read it?

    Many books, research papers, and other texts are as vulnerable to being poor or biased or misleading sources as are websites. It’s my job as a writer to judge whether this, or any other source, is a reliable one or not.

  29. By Laura Bien
    September 13, 2010 at 4:09 pm | permalink

    George Hammond: That is fascinating bird info. I’d had no idea there were as many as a dozen different permutations of sparrows here in Washtenaw County. Thank you for kindly contacting Dea Armstrong.

  30. By Laura Bien
    September 13, 2010 at 4:15 pm | permalink

    Deaver Armstrong: Thank you for your informative and interesting reply; it’s a nuanced situation, clearly.

    Checked the site you linked but after scrolling down I did not see, or overlooked, the species English or house sparrow. It is interesting to learn, however, that their numbers are declining; I wonder why.

  31. By Laura Bien
    September 13, 2010 at 4:47 pm | permalink

    Jim Reed: On second reading my comment sounds almost snarky. Sorry. That was not intended (tone is so tricky in text at times). As I said your point is well taken, and I will keep it in mind.

    My cherished go-to source for more timeless topics is my set of 1961 Encyclopedia Britannicas. Just the writing and essay structure is a pleasure in itself. In fact if you can believe it we have two complete sets. And, though I’m not sure if this reveals a bit too much about me…one is in the bedroom.

    Just in case you want to refresh your memory on Malta’s principal exports before bedtime.

  32. September 13, 2010 at 5:07 pm | permalink

    Re #30, here is the direct link to the house sparrow data for Michigan: [link]

    It does not explain causes, just shows a negative trend which indicates that the number of observations has dropped over time (1966-2006).

  33. By Jeff Reed
    September 14, 2010 at 10:54 pm | permalink

    Thanks for listening, Laura. I realize I’m nitpicking a tad regarding Wikipedia references in this article, but it’s frustrating to see elements of journalism devolve to blogging (as opposed to blogging being elevated to journalism, mind you). In this arena it’s acceptable to reference Wikipedia as a springboard to other more authoritative references, or as a resource for entertainment, but that’s about it.

    And to answer your question, no, I didn’t read the Wiki article. Nor do I personal knowledge of the subject matter. I was certainly pulled into the article by the subject, lead, and writing, but frankly, I stopped reading when I saw Wikipedia presented as a source.

    (And you weren’t snarky, No worries.)