Newtown Playground - House Sparrows in New York City Parks
If you look around Newtown Playground, you will probably see house sparrows
(Passer domesticus). This small, brown bird has a black bib (throat).
Only 200 years ago, there were no house sparrows on the entire continent of
North America. Today, it is estimated that there are over 150 million. The dramatic
rise of the house sparrow in New York City and throughout North America can
be attributed to 19th century industrialization and human manipulation of the
There are conflicting rumors about why the sparrow was first brought to the
United States. Some attribute its arrival to a group of well-read people who
tried to introduce the birds mentioned in William Shakespeare’s plays into
the United States. Others believe that a single man imported the sparrow from
England because he wanted to be reminded of home. Most people, however, agree
that the house sparrow was brought to the United States because it was an attractive
bird that could also control the growing insect populations of the time.
To accommodate the burgeoning human population of the city during the first
half of the 19th century, much of the natural landscape was cleared away to
make room for new housing and commercial developments. This extensive industrialization
drove out many of New York City’s native species, disturbing the natural
balance of predator and prey. Insect infestations of trees and other plants
became a major problem. Having heard that the house sparrows of European cities
helped to control insect infestations, a group of New Yorkers imported eight
pairs from England in 1850 and released them into the city. They survived for
a time, but died before they were able to breed.
Soon afterward, Nicholas Pike, the director of the Brooklyn Institute, traveled
to Liverpool, England to collect more sparrows. This time, 100 house sparrows
were shipped back to the city. Half of them were released on arrival in 1851,
while the other half were bred in Green-Wood Cemetery. These 50 birds were originally
kept in the tower of the cemetery, but when they seemed unhappy, a leading citizen
brought them to his house for the winter. The following year, these birds were
released into the cemetery, where a man was employed just to take care of them.
This second wave succeeded where the first had failed. Due to the success of
the introduction into Green-Wood Cemetery, several more shipments of sparrows
arrived and were released in the cemetery and also Central Park, Union Square
Park, and Madison Square Park. Other cities also imported sparrows from England
or even from New York City, including Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and San
Francisco. While some considered the sparrows to be a loud nuisance, others
were pleased that the birds were feeding on insects. In Boston, some citizens
placed such a high value on their sparrows that a man was hired to shoot other
birds that threatened them.
Newtown Playground takes its name from one of the oldest European settlements
in Queens. To distinguish this area from the failed colony at Maspeth, the English
settlers called it the new town. Newtown lent its name to an apple, the Newtown
pippin, and a waterway that separates Brooklyn from Queens, Newtown Creek. Human
influence on the environment can also be seen in Newtown Playground in the form
of house sparrows, which have flourished since their introduction to the city.
The house sparrow population grew so large because it was one of the first
species to successfully populate urban areas. If there had been other dominant
urban bird species, the house sparrow might not have survived. While the house
sparrow population experienced a surge in one century, it has suffered a more
recent decline due to the technological advances of the 20th century. As automobiles
replaced horses for transportation and steel replaced wood for construction,
the house sparrow could no longer nest in its usual areas and could not feed
on oats scattered by horses. As the house sparrow population decreased, other
species’ populations, such as the pigeon (Columbia livia), have
grown. Despite declines in population, the house sparrow remains ubiquitous.
Today, Parks discourages the feeding of birds or squirrels in playgrounds because
the leftover food can attract rats.
Directions to Newtown Playground
Know Before You Go
As a part of our Anchor Parks initiative, reconstruction of Charybdis Playground in Astoria Park is now underway. Follow this project on the Parks Capital Tracker for updates.
Anticipated Completion: Spring 2021
- Newtown Playground
- Newtown Playground - House Sparrows In New York City Parks