The world would be a duller place without sparrows

In Britain, the number of house sparrows is down, but an active flock gathers outside this bird-watcher's window.

Our kitchen window looks onto a cherry tree. But these days it looks more like a Christmas tree. I blame the squirrels. The tree is festooned with bird feeders of every shape, size, design, and attempted squirrel bafflement. Rather than kill, we've gone for overkill. As the old gardeners always said – plant enough raspberries for you and the blackbirds. So we dangle from the cherry branches enough bird feeders for the squirrels and the birds. Oh, and the mice.

This system of overgenerosity seems to be working. The squirrels take their fill. But the birds are far from starved. Coming down to breakfast this morning, I felt as if I was inside an aviary.

One species I'm really pleased to see: the house sparrows. They arrive in a horde – excitable, keen, competitive. They eat quickly, flutter at one another, leap onto the feeders, and hop on the ground as if on tiny springs. Something probably not altogether commendable in me likes their gregarious gang spirit.

House sparrows were once far from rare in Britain. They are not always appreciated for naughty habits such as pecking the flowers off crocuses, eating chicken feed, and decimating fields of grain. But there is concern now over a radical decrease in the house sparrow population here. No one seems sure why it's happening. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reports that "over 25 years, the population has declined by 62 percent." It is today "a species of high conservation concern."

The evidence outside our kitchen window, however, runs somewhat counter to the trend. That is assuming that the members of our local happy-go-lucky flock are, indeed, house sparrows. But I am no ornithologist. And when I was discussing "our" birds with a friend and she said, "Are you sure they aren't dunnocks?" – doubts arose.

I've met this question before. I decided it was time to settle it once and for all. To an amateur, both birds are brown, gray, and a bit streaky. Their ordinariness is the problem and is compounded by the existence of not dissimilar "tree sparrows."

However, according to Those Who Know, it turns out that dunnocks have thin, pointy beaks and quite slender bodies. Our fatties have thick beaks. As my "Collins Bird Guide" notes, the house sparrow is "robust, with broad body and fairly big head with stout bill." The tree sparrow is smaller and neater, although "still often confused by the layman."

I am now convinced our ebullient bunch are authentic house sparrows. Furthermore, I feel terribly virtuous because in our household we are doing our bit to save them from extinction ... well – kind of.

Counting birds, and sparrows in particular, is far from easy. They won't sit still. Every time I try, one flits suddenly onto the honeysuckle, or three or four scuttle under a shrub. A sudden noise has them all disappearing in a swoosh over to the aspen tree.

I tried again yesterday evening when they were having a glorious dust bath in the dry earth under the red-twigged dogwood. I believe we have a round dozen, although my better half thinks there are more. Of course, in the larger scale of things, they don't add up to much compared with the count in 2000 that estimated "between 2.1 [million] and 3.6 million pairs breeding in the UK." There are still a few around, then.

Watching the collective energy of our "speugs," as the Scots call them, I have a feeling they are survivors. The world would be decidedly duller without them. In some cultures, they have long been loved – particularly among Japanese poets: "The sparrow hops along the veranda, with wet feet," wrote Shiki with powerfully memorable brevity.

Issa wrote about "strutting sparrows ... introducing their children to society." This, too, is one of his many sparrow haiku:

sparrows at the gate – a quarrel between brothers breaks out

In Matthew's Gospel, their very insignificance illustrates God's awareness of even the least "valuable" parts of his creation: "one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father."

And then – in complete contrast – Beatrix Potter gave literary fame and adult language to three sparrows in her first story for children, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit."

They, like their author and her "naughty" hero, are on the side of mischief and adventure rather than stay-at-home virtue. And what reader actually wants Peter to get his comeuppance? When the recalcitrant rabbit – hotly pursued by Mr. McGregor, the irate gardener who's yelling, "Stop thief!" – ran into a gooseberry net, he "gave himself up for lost, and shed big tears; but his sobs were overheard by some friendly sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement, and implored him to exert himself."

And Peter, quite rightly, learned a significant lesson – that one should never ever ignore the impetuous, exigent encouragement of sparrows.

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