Richmond's Sparrow Plague


Peril and Pennies from the Skies

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a growing threat to Richmond’s prosperity darkened the skies. A small number of house sparrows – as few as 100 – had been introduced to New Zealand between 1866 and 1871 to help control insects. Their numbers grew rapidly thanks to plentiful food, lack of competition and few predators. And rather than eating crop-destroying pests, the sparrows preferred to feast on the crops themselves, laying waste to the grain fields and fruit orchards around Richmond.

Advertisement. Colonist 9 Sep 1903 p.2

Advertisement. Colonist 9 Sep 1903 p.2. Papers Past

“The birds were doing a lot of damage to the crops – they were pretty thick. The sparrows ate oats. There’d be a strip right around the outside of the paddock where all the oat seeds had gone.” Bob and Mona Pugh.1

The feeding frenzy could not be allowed to continue, the authorities decreed, and in 1882 the Small Birds Nuisance Act was passed, allowing councils to levy rates to fund the destruction of sparrows and other crop-hungry birds. In 1889, that Act was replaced by another allowing councils to lay poisoned grain to control sparrow numbers.

From then on Richmond’s sparrows had a price on their heads. The Richmond Borough Council paid several pence a dozen for sparrow eggs and heads, and the enterprising children of the borough responded with enthusiasm forming a local "sparrow club" to hunt for eggs (known as "bird nesting") and small birds.

“The hedges were marvelous for bird nesting. I learnt there how to ring a bird’s neck and it was no trouble at all!” Muir McGlashen.2

The town clerk – the equivalent of a chief executive in today’s terms - oversaw the slaughter from the back of the new Borough Council building (opened in 1904) on Queen Street. 

“He had a hole dug in the ground and we had our golden syrup tins full of eggs or birds’ heads. You had to tip them out, and then old E.J. Thomas [town clerk Ed James Thomas] would flick the eggs and heads etcetera into the hole. We used to get three or four pence a dozen, which was a lot of money in those days.” Ken Beach.3

The young people were happy to get one over the town clerk – any eggs that weren’t smashed by the town clerk were inevitably “recycled” and a second bounty collected.

“Mr E.J. Thomas had a hole there and he endeavoured to break the eggs as we sold them to him, but we ensured that every egg that he didn’t get broken when he bought them, we retrieved about half an hour later or as soon as he had gone back to his office.” Muir McGlashen.

Richmond Borough Council

Jones F N. Richmond Borough Council Offices. 1904. Nelson Provincial Museum Photographic Collection. Ref: 310031.

Their efforts seemed to make little difference to the sparrow population. The town clerk from 1902 – 1915, Samuel Fittall, wrote to the editor of the Nelson Mail in response to criticism of the borough’s response to the sparrow menace: “Poisoned wheat has been distributed in the winter months, and birds’ eggs and heads purchased during the season. That the results have been unsatisfactory everybody admits. The nuisance seems to defy all efforts to repress it…”4

The Richmond Borough Municipal Chambers Building

The site of Richmond’s sparrow graveyard was behind the Richmond Borough Municipal Chambers building. This building was across the road and slightly west of the current Richmond Library building. The council building was constructed by W.E. Wilkes, and was officially opened in 1904. The new seat of local government cost a total of £295 – including the curtains and fittings.

Town clerk Samuel Fittall took ownership of the interior decorating, perhaps feeling nostalgic for his days as a house painter and decorator in England.
The Nelson Mail was complimentary towards the “plain and substantial building” in its story of the public opening on 5 August 1904, giving a detailed account of its dimensions: “The building is 23 feet wide and 58 feet long [8.5 metres by 17.6m], with a height of ceiling of 14 feet [4.2m]. The Town Clerk’s Office is 10 feet by 15 feet [3m by 4.5m], and the dimensions of the Council Chambers are 30 feet by 20 feet 6 inches [9m by 6m].”5
Text taken from the Peril and Pennies from the Skies -  Queen Street Heritage Board 2017.
Updated 2022

Sources used in this story

  1. Pugh, M. and Pugh B. (1984, August 22). Interviewed by Van Wessel, L. [Transcript of tape recording]. Richmond Oral History Project, Richmond Borough Council. Richmond, New Zealand:
  2. McGlashen, M. (1984, July 23). Interviewer unknown. [Transcript of tape recording]. Richmond Oral History Project, Richmond Borough Council. Richmond, New Zealand:
  3. Beach, K. and Beach M. (1984). Interview with Runnacles, D. J. [Transcript of tape recording]. Richmond Oral History Project, Richmond Borough Council. Richmond, New Zealand:
  4. The small bird pest. (1906, March 12). Nelson Evening Mail, p.2. Retrieved from
  5. New municipal office at Richmond. (1904, August 5). Nelson Evening Mail, p.2. Retrieved from

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Web Resources

Transcripts of oral histories from the Richmond Oral History Project on Tasman Heritage