Tuesday, April 21, 2009
I’m apparently one of the few bird enthusiasts who doesn’t mind house sparrows…which is the more correct name for what everyone usually calls an “English” sparrow. In fact, I’ll go a step farther and come right out and say I rather like these jaunty little birds. A few years back, health and related circumstances pretty much confined me to spending a summer at the condo where I then lived. Outdoor time meant taking Moon the dog on short walks, or sprawling on a chaise longue on the small rear patio. A weathered board privacy fence divided this postage-sized concrete pad from those of the neighbors. I had a few flowers in pots and a swath of grass 18 inches wide and 10 feet long on either side of a single stepping stone—my “walk”—separating the patio from the blacktop parking lot and the garages beyond. A paltry bit of greenery which sufficed for a yard. It was a horrible plight for a fellow who usually spent most of his time afield—fishing, camping, hiking, traveling, and taking photographs—then writing about his adventures afterwards. I would have spent more time feeling sorry for myself if I hadn’t been so busy struggling to live…and grateful when each new day dawned and I turned out to still be around. One of the real pleasures that year was a pair of house sparrows who decided to nest in a box I’d affixed to the patio fence. As the weeks progressed, those dooryard sparrows and I grew close. The jaunty little birds became relaxed to my presence—going about their daily business with only an occasional speculative glance in my direction. The male tamed to where he’d pluck at leftover sandwich crumbs from the table at my elbow. Or sip from the dog’s water bowl sitting inches from my feet—even extending his trust to the point of hopping within a foot of Moon’s recumbent form when she stretched out on the patio to cool her belly on the concrete. House sparrows are monogamous. Their strong pair-bond commitment is established for the long haul, not just a breeding season fling. Moreover, they seem to enjoy each other’s company. Often they’d take time from feeding and housekeeping chores to chirrup back and forth, as if in intimate conversation, or regularly preening and nuzzling like Parisian lovers atop the fence. I watched how the couple tirelessly fed their young, from dawn to dusk, hustling all the way—taking turns bringing the newly hatched youngsters a running smorgasbord of tidbits. Everything from seeds and bits of grain, to worms and bugs of all sorts and sizes. Occasionally the male would perch atop the cedar fence and sing a few bars of his familiar, albeit simplistic and somewhat unmusical, song. And I thought him quite handsome in his gray cap and lighter undercarriage, brown back streaked with black, black chin, throat, and bib, white cheeks, and especially the rich chestnut bordering his crown and extending down the back of his neck. House sparrows are not natives. A hundred or so were brought to this country and released in Brooklyn in the fall of 1851. Historical immigrants, just like most of us…which I think the bird’s detractors too easily overlook. They like to live around us, even with us, preferring the human company of cities, suburbs, farmlands. No wide open spaces or endless dark forests, but dooryard birds who want to be part of the family. If they happen to be a little on the messy, noisy, and occasionally temperamental side…so what? We are, too. In truth, the house sparrow population worldwide appears to be dwindling, though no one seems to know why. And I can’t help but wonder if our lack of concern, the missing urgency necessary to solve the mystery and, if possible, reverse its course, isn’t rooted in the disrespect so often shown this ubiquitous species. Personally, I’ll continue to defend them, feed them, and enjoy them—because I’ve come to know them. They provided company, amusement…and something awfully close to friendship when they trusted and allowed me to be such a close observer of their life and world during a summer when mine seemed to be filled with darkness and despair. I appreciated it then and I'm grateful still today.