Coun­try di­ary

Sandy, Bed­ford­shire

The Guardian - Journal - - Letters -

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.

Derek Niemann

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