Dominoes, sparrows, and shaggy dogs

To beat their own previously-established Guiness-Book-published World Record, a group of people intended to set up 4 million dominoes and knock them over. A bird flew in and knocked over a bunch of the dominoes. The group shot the sparrow. It gets weirder from there.

Gene Bardach thinks it’s hard to decide which aspect of this story is the funniest:

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) — The Dutch animal protection agency said Tuesday it is investigating the shooting death of a sparrow that knocked over 23,000 dominoes during an attempt to set a world record.

The ill-fated bird flew into an exposition center, threatening to derail a world record Monday, before it was chased into a corner and shot by an exterminator with an air rifle.

The bird was a common house sparrow — a species placed on the national endangered list last year.

“Under Dutch law, you need a permit to kill this kind of bird, and a permit can only be granted when there’s a danger to public health or a crop,” agency spokesman Niels Dorland said.

“That was not the case. I might add, is it really necessary to kill a bird that knocked over a few dominoes for a game?”

Dorland said the agency plans to submit the case to national prosecutors. The incident came as the national birdwatchers association was preparing a campaign to draw attention to the rapidly declining number of sparrows in the country.

The Endemol production company, which organized the Domino Day event, defended the killing. The organizers wanted to break their own Guinness World Record of 3,992,397 dominoes set last year by toppling a chain of 4,321,000 blocks.

Around 200,000 dominoes were left to go, and the bird knocked down 23,000 of them.

Endemol spokesman Jeroen van Waardenberg said organizers made a “split-second” decision to shoot down the bird.

“That bird was flying around and knocking over a lot of dominoes. More than 100 people from 12 countries had worked for more than a month setting them up,” he said.

He said organizers had believed the building was fully sealed against birds and mice. The company is considering some kind of memorial or mention for the dead bird during the television broadcast Friday, he added.

But Dorland said shooting the sparrow to ensure the success of the program was an overreaction.

“I think they were awfully fast to pull out a rifle,” he said. “If a person started knocking over a few dominoes they wouldn’t shoot him would they?”

A Dutch website called Geenstijl offered a $1,200 reward for anybody who knocks over the dominoes ahead of time to avenge the bird.

Hans Peeters, director of the Netherlands Bird Protection agency, called the killing “ridiculous.”

He said rapid urbanization in the Netherlands was threatening the species.

“There were more than 2 million breeding pairs in the Netherlands 20 years ago,” he said. “Now there’s a half a million to a million at most. We hope this can be a call to action.”

Gene’s list of candidates for the “funniest element” prize?

1. That there is in this world a global domino-setting-up-and-knocking-over contest involving some 4 million dominos and a month of set-up time?

2. That a solo flying bird proved capable of nearly ruining it?

3. That the bird was a humble sparrow?

4. That assassinating the sparrow was the chosen mode of damage limitation?

5. That sparrow assassination brought down the wrath of the Dutch government and several organized citizens groups?

6. That the sparrow-killers invoked a crime passionel defense?

7. That the counter to that defense equated assassinating a sparrow with killing a person?

8. That the Netherlands Bird Protection Association sees in this incident a potential “call to action” on behalf of sparrow population preservation?

9. That there will be a few words spoken on a telecast to memorialize the sparrow?

10. That someone is offering a reward to anyone who can knock over the dominos early, to avenge the sparrow?

Personally, I vote for #4. but, really, it’s hard to choose.

I agree with Gene that there are many worthy candidates, but in my view #1 easily takes the prize. The role of the Guiness Book in generating bizarre behavior is something out of a Neal Stephenson story.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: