Invasive Species Compendium

Detailed coverage of invasive species threatening livelihoods and the environment worldwide

Abstract

"Conquered by the sparrows": avian invasions in French North Africa, circa 1871-1920.

Abstract

Wheat and barley farmers in North Africa during the French colonial period often experienced plagues of migrating Spanish sparrows (Passer hispaniolensis) that significantly affected the rural economy. Each spring, breeding sparrows nested near fields to raise their young and to consume the winter crop as it matured. This article documents the extent of the avian nuisance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, focusing especially on eastern Algeria. It argues that changes in rural infrastructure and land use, notably the establishment of large farms and the wide-scale planting of eucalyptus trees, made many European settlements more attractive to the migrating sparrows. A warmer climate following the Little Ice Age may also have contributed to an increase in the size and range of Spanish sparrow populations in North Africa. Demonstrating a deep understanding of the environmental challenge that they faced, settler communities enacted a range of collective responses to the bird plagues, which resembled local forms of an "environmental management state." They also consistently demanded state action in response to these plagues, but metropolitan bird protection laws appear to have limited the colonial government's options and appetite for action in French Algeria. The sparrow problem could be managed but not overcome.