I’ve got a bad case of sparrows. No matter where I am in the house a sparrow isn’t far away. Even now, in my writing room, I can hear the chirpy little birds in the front garden, plus they’re scurrying in the guttering above, and they’re also in the climbing rose around the side. There’s always a squadron of the bloody things in the backyard wattles; from there they can do raids on the chook-house.
I grew up being told that sparrows are awful birds because, like rats, they carry disease. Indeed some people call sparrows ‘rats of the air’, but that’s not an image worth exploring right now.
Because sparrows are clearly a permanent fixture of my house I’ve been reading up on them. I’ve learnt that the common ‘House Sparrow’, Passer domesticus, originated in the Middle East and has been taking the world by storm ever since, apparently by natural migration or ‘seaborne travel’ (don’t tell our politicians). In the 1860s, sparrows were purposely introduced to Australia in an attempt to make the place more European – our forebears really were a bit odd, weren’t they. I’ve learnt that because of their ability to adapt the sparrow was considered The World’s Most Successful Bird, as if it was an electronics company or a type of religion.
However, there’s trouble in paradise: sparrow populations are dwindling. They’ve completely disappeared from central London, though they remain in Paris, which probably just suggests that our little feathered friends have excellent taste in bread and cheese. Populations in Australia are also shrinking, because there are fewer insects to eat due to increased pesticide use and decreased flora diversity. Or because the Indian Mynar is having a good crack at that World’s Most Successful Bird title.
So I’m starting to feel sorry for my own little sparrow population, perhaps even grateful. Old Mr Shakespeare would have agreed: in Hamlet he wrote, ‘There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow’. Further back, the Bible’s Old Testament said, ‘I watch and am like a sparrow alone on the house top’ (Psalm 102:7), which no doubt is the motto of the International Stalkers Fellowship. Jokes aside, I am rather taken with the lyrics of the 1905 Gospel hymn ‘His Eye on the Sparrow’: ‘His eye is on the sparrow/and I know He watches me’. I better go see what the chooks make of that.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 29 October 2011.)