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The Sparrow Bounty

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Perhaps July 1st, 1891, was a slow day in the Illinois Legislature. Or perhaps the Republicans and Democrats were looking for an issue on which they could agree. Whatever the reason, on that date, the State of Illinois declared war on the English sparrow and set a bounty of two cents a head. The said sparrow was a rather handsome bird, brown with a white breast and a black bib, but it had committed two unforgivable sins: it was not a native Illinoisan, and it had the nerve to be common.

Illinois boys were overjoyed at the prospect of getting money for something they were already doing for free, but the legislature soon discovered the sparrow hunt was not so simple.

The senators quickly limited the season on English sparrows to December, January, and February to protect the summer songbirds.

Then, who would pay the bounty? The legislators decided it would be the county clerk of each county. But the county clerk could not spend his time doling out two cents every time a boy brought in a dead sparrow. They must be in multiples of ten, decided the legislature. What to do with the piles of dead birds, someone asked. Heads only, to save space, declared the legislators.

Fine, but county clerks are not ornithologists. What if a boy tried to sneak some non-sparrow heads into the pile? The legislature passed a law establishing a fine for any boy attempting to claim a bounty on a non-sparrow, declared it a misdemeanor for clerks to accept any non-sparrows, and ordered the director of the state laboratory of natural history to create a bulletin showing clerks what sparrows looked like. So far, so good, but how would the boy actually get his money? The clerk was not apt to keep a drawer full of change.

Well, said the legislature, the clerk will fill out a certificate stating the amount of the bounty. The county clerk will then draw out a warrant for the amount, and the boy will take it to the country treasurer, who shall then pay the same out of the contingency fund to the county in which the sparrows have been killed.

By now, you know what happened. English sparrows have multiplied by the millions since then, after the legislature took all the fun out of killing them.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.