Lolling in the shade under a hazel bush, I had become the inadvertent eavesdropper on a private conversation. Out of the canopy came a whispered “brrr” whirr of wings and then the soft sounds of sparrow seduction, a love song of tenderness that was scarcely imaginable from a bird known for its strident chirps. Gentle, soothing, piteous peeps drifted down, an intimate dialogue that was both charming and disarming. I caught a glimpse through the sparrows’ bower and saw the female, mouth agape, wings aflutter. The male rode her for a second or two only. House sparrows may mate up to 40 times a day, but it’s always a quickie.
For the female, coitus interrupted something far more pressing. The instant he dismounted, she flew back to her chick-packed nestbox, clawed against the rim of the hole, and tipped inside.
For a full fortnight, I shared outdoor mealtimes with the sparrows and observed their own nutritional nous in feeding their young. I knew the eggs had hatched when the pair started making frequent sorties to a row of nearby lime trees. They were probably bringing back baby food, their beaks stuffed full of soft-bodied aphids. Days later, the female took in bigger, hard-bodied prey – I saw the tangle of legs and wings of a cranefly, and a giant baguette of a broad-bodied chaser dragonfly held lengthways, only just fitting through the aperture. By now, the male had vanished, and feeding was done by the female alone.
Each arrival at the nest set off a thin, piping chorus. She would habitually fly from the nest hole with a cream-coloured faecal sac in her beak. The peeps grew louder and more chirp-like, the chick “nappies” got bigger. On one of the last days, I counted the times between her leaving and returning to the nest – 32 seconds, 27, 35. She had found a source of fast food – a ground feeder in a neighbouring garden – but the switch to a seedpacked diet was exactly what her nearly grown chicks needed.
The chicks have fledged, and the female and her new beau were at it again just now up on the gutter. I listened hard and caught the quiet hum, the murmur of sweet sparrow nothings.