Ruffians With Feathers

I STOOD at the picture window, dreamily facing the front-yard feeder, and murmured to myself: ``All the pretty little, sweet little birds ....'' Then I caught myself, acknowledging: ``Little, yes, but not all that sweet. They're scrappy wights, survivors, noted for their aggressiveness.''

How thoughtlessly many of us latch onto superlatives intended to describe wild creatures that, at best, we know little about. Sweet implies, according to my thesaurus, ``pretty, pleasing, fragrant, melodious, lovable'' and so on. Sparrows don't actually know about, claim, or possess any of those attributes. Rather, they are drab street urchins, not particularly musical (except for the spring songster), and in the main, quarrelsome and unsavory with their parasites. (There I go, judging them by my human standards again.)

Although we realize all this on second or third thought, we go right on rhapsodizing about birds (and other forms of wildlife) in much the same way. Anthropomorphism is the term for this tendency to attribute to our fellow creatures many of the same habits and feelings that we possess. The way we look at sparrows is just another way our false assumptions are manifested. We see them - but do not truly observe behavioral patterns.

We get misty-eyed, watching the feather-blown beggars as they jostle around the food trough in the most inclement winter weather. We fret about their wee feet freezing, or those brittle toothpick legs snapping in the cold night. The truth is, of course, that these birds are naturally outfitted to withstand hardship, and they don't tumble off branches and perish of cold. The reason for that happening is simply that they haven't rounded up enough fuel to maintain their tiny furnaces during a long winter's night.

So those feisty critters whom St. Luke mentions in the Bible as being ``sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten by God...'' continue to increase and multiply. Luke knew what he was talking about. Most sparrows around today arrived here from England - via Brooklyn, New York - and that might just speak volumes for their Artful Dodger-ness.

We appreciate them because, although there are no longer hundreds of horses for them to clean up after on city streets, they continue to eat a tremendous number of insect pests that would otherwise threaten to overcome us. These Brooklyn bums are now more politely dubbed ``house sparrows.'' They've come up a considerable distance in the social order, I dare say.

Aside from still being labeled guttersnipes in some quarters, sparrows are not cruel, save by our warped standards, in their methods of driving off ``better'' birds from nesting nearby. They have their own moral standards, and it's easy enough for us - smug in our own goodness - to write them off in favor of other birds of prey. (Bluebirds, orioles, swallows, and robins also get their protein from live crawlies wherever they can be discovered.)

All the sparrows want, if we dare speak for them, is enough to eat, to have young, and to have a safe place to sleep. They can look out for themselves quite well. We may call them brawlers or whatever else our limited intellect can suggest. But the elemental facts are clearly beyond our comprehension. It's we who've fouled up the environment, not the sparrows. As for this amateur birder, suffice it to say that the bird feeder will be kept supplied with seeds for all as long as these hands are able to fill it.

Even though they are less than sweet little sparrows, they are heaven's charges even as we are.

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