This house sparrow was caught on our Bushnell nature cam, seed in her mouth, her relaxed feet hanging loose as her wings do what comes naturally to them, beating perhaps fifteen times a second. These short wings allow for a quick lift off, though she’s not built for speed, rather a swift exit when the neighbourhood cats are out. For once the humble sparrow looked exotic to me, like a new species of bat or four-winged bird.
We are lucky here, our garden could be known as sparrow central, and my nine-year-old counted nineteen of them during the Big Garden Bird Watch. They like nesting in our old eaves, and for me, they signify home. They are seen from the moment I lift the latch on the front gate, witnessed from every window, heard tweeting on the roof via the wood-burner in the sitting room. Our space is theirs, and generations of sparrows have grown up here, for they do not venture far. It is said that the fiercely defended territory of a male sparrow ‘really only consists of the nesting hole and a very small area around it.’ (BTO)
There is a danger that, like all things familiar, the humble sparrow is taken for granted. It’s an age-old problem; in Luke’s gospel Jesus says, ‘Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.’ Then they were sold for sacrifice.
In England from the 1700s (and perhaps earlier) they were so plentiful they were considered a pest by farmers, and there was a bounty on their heads; Sparrow Clubs existed, not as appreciation societies but with the sole purpose of killing as many as possible, while parish payments were available to anyone producing evidence. The Stone Street Club near me in Kent lasted until 2003, though perhaps in name only. These clubs often collected rats tails too, which may account for this local group’s longevity.
Now sparrows are protected in the UK, though not all of Europe is quite so respectful. A student in one of my creative writing groups told me of an experience that disturbed her as a child. In Italy when she grew up, she said, sparrows were a delicacy and commonly eaten. She can still remember the horrid crunch of the little bones. She was made to sit there and eat, though her father would get up and walk out. Now she won’t touch poultry. I completely understand.
If, like me, you are alarmed by the sparrow’s rapid decline, consider what you can do to help them. If your house doesn’t hold nooks for them to nest in, think about putting up a sparrow nesting box. These are of a specific design – think of the sparrow’s sense of community – and look like a small bird terrace with at least three holes. Mealworms are thought to provide sparrow chicks with an increased chance of survival, and avoid pesticides in your garden, as there will be less insects for your sparrows to feed on. Introduce a wild zone in your garden, where you let things go. Choose butterfly-attracting plants and allow flower heads to go to seed.
Silent Fields: The Long Decline of a Nation’s Wildlife by Roger Lovegrove