Thursday, March 1, 2012

Importing German Birds to North America

This concise entry in the Was gibt's Neues? section of the May 1890 Das Evangelische Magazin (Cleveland, Ohio) leads modern readers into an interesting chapter in American history:

"Here's the most recent information about the importation of German songbirds birds into the area of Portland, Oregon: In the town of Milwaukie, about seven miles southeast of Portland on the Willamette River, a flock of approximately 16 young German larks has been observed; these are the first offspring of a group of larks brought to Portland by the German Songbird Society. German thrushes and blackbirds were found foraging in many of Portland's gardens over the winter, and they regularly nested in the Germania Gardens there. Soon the migratory birds will begin to return, and hopefully those German ones that left in the fall also won't forget to come back."

German-speaking immigrants missed the birds they had known from their childhood, and efforts were undertaken throughout the 19th century to introduce these species to North America. In his 1891 book Die Nordamerikanische Vogelwelt (Milwaukee, Wis.: Geo. Brumder), ornithologist and horticulturist Henry Nehrling describes reasons behind efforts to acclimatize foreign birds in this way: "With longing he [the German immigrant] thinks back to those times when the nightingale’s song permeated the grove, the exultant trilling of the lark rang down from the blue heaven, and the fluting tones of the blackbird, the love song of the blackcap, and the call of the chaffinch resounded from mountain and valley. This love for the old homeland and for the songbirds that brightened one’s younger days motivated the founding of so-called acclimatization societies [Einbürgerungsvereine] in several locales.”

Ignoring objections raised by prominent ornithologists, German songbirds were introduced in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Boston, and New York. Of the many birds released in these areas, Nehrling reports that only goldfinches in Boston and New York, and some larks in other places, were successfully domesticated. Most of the experiments ended in failure, because the severe winter weather of the eastern, northern, and central states annihilated the exotic birds there.

In 1889, an attempt to bring German songbirds to the mild climate of Portland, Oregon, fared much better. Mr. Pflüger, the Secretary of the “Verein zur Einführung nützlicher deutscher Singvögel in Oregon,” reports that 300 pairs of German songbirds were imported, including nightingales, blackcaps, blackbirds, larks, song thrushes, bullfinches, siskins, quail, crossbills, and various types of Sylvia. Many reproduced successfully and could within a few years be found all over the state, with many of them remaining through the winter rather than migrating. Mr. Pflüger writes that “in the spring of 1890 a little snow fell. One saw blackbirds flying around together with American robins. Many of the native Americans stared in astonishment at the black birds with yellow bills, which otherwise closely resembled robins; they had never seen anything like them before. . . . One also now hears the singing of song thrushes on a daily basis.” The imported nightingales probab became extinct, as few survived the long trip from Europe, and none have been seen since. But the success the Society to import another large group of birds in March of 1891: Mr. Pflüger reported then that the Skylarks, Blackbirds, Goldfinches, Siskins, Linnets, and Greenfinches were doing especially well.

For more information on Henry Nehrling and Die Nordamerikanische Vogelwelt see the cover article of the Fall 2007 Friends of the MKI Newsletter: <>. And here is a Wikipedia entry on Frank Dekum, the German-born President of Portland's German Songbird Society <>

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