The Gar­den Birder

This month Clare How­cutt-kelly ex­tols the virtues of the oft-over­looked spar­row

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents -

Why the hum­ble House Spar­row de­serves more than just a cur­sory glance

Spar­rows are the per­pet­ual sup­port­ing ac­tors. The un­der­study of the bright and shiny stars. They may prac­tise their awards ac­cep­tance speech, but they’re un­likely to ever get the au­di­ence to re­alise it. Known as Lit­tle Brown Jobs or Job­bies (LBJS) in the bird­ing world, these petite passer­ines are roughly 16cm long so, yes, they are small (but Wrens are around 10cm). Is it re­ally fair to call them ‘lit­tle’, then? To be sure I was fully un­der­stand­ing the def­i­ni­tion of LBJ, I fired up the ma­chine and Googled as all good jour­nal­ists do. One source con­firmed, “an LBJ is a small, non­de­script brown bird, usu­ally a spar­row.” Fo­rums were even more dis­mis­sive. The whole term re­ally ruf­fles my feath­ers for the fol­low­ing rea­sons: I can’t ar­gue they are lit­tle, al­though I haven’t caught one to of­fi­cially mea­sure it. Are spar­rows brown? Yes. But they are also shades as di­verse as the Star­bucks menu – mocha, cap­puc­cino, latte... Now, let’s talk job, or rather job­bie. What’s a job­bie? Some­thing rude? A temp worker? A bit-part ac­tress who spends the rest of the her time wait­ing at ta­bles, en­dur­ing soggy Sunday roasts at the Dew Drop Inn? Are you get­ting my point? They are one of the most wide­spread birds in the world, pop­ping up in Asia, Africa, Amer­ica and Europe but, ac­cord­ing to the RSPB, House Spar­row pop­u­la­tions are down around 60% in the UK since the 1970s. That is a huge deal and it will roy­ally cheese off Spar­rowhawks, too, who quite like eat­ing them. Af­ter all, that is their job. Facts are facts, but I want to tell you about what I have wit­nessed by sit­ting and watching these birds and how they treat each other. Dur­ing the month of May, the river was team­ing with mayflies – their lacy wings flut­ter­ing fu­ri­ously try­ing to es­cape preda­tors. Be­ing as they only live (as adults) for about five min­utes, it’s a pretty short win­dow to Hou­dini. The birds are clever. They know this. Spar­rows near the river await the day the all-you-caneat mayfly buf­fet opens, and when it does, there is a great com­mo­tion. I have watched spar­rows out­dive Tom Da­ley, swoop­ing with an el­e­gance you’d nor­mally as­so­ciate with more glam­orous birds. They emerge vic­to­ri­ous with a mayfly clamped in beak and, rather than gob­ble it all up, they wait pa­tiently for their young to ven­ture over and ten­derly feed them. I love the sound of them chirp­ing in the bushes – I think it’s a happy noise. It cer­tainly sounds it to me and you can’t deny they are so­cia­ble, even dur­ing times of dis­agree­ment. These birds were revered by the Greek god­dess Aphrodite as a sym­bol of true love; and the an­cient Egyp­tians thought they were even more pow­er­ful, able to fast-track souls of the dead into heaven without the need for back­ground checks. Hav­ing co-ex­isted with hu­mans for per­haps tens of thou­sands of years, spar­rows are more than used to our fickle ways. Dine out at any pave­ment café dur­ing the

sum­mer months and you’ll likely find them hop­ping around under the ta­ble, but they used to be on the ta­ble, and I don’t mean alive. In 1769, El­iz­a­beth Raf­fald’s book The Ex­pe­ri­enced English House­keeper con­tained a recipe for spar­row dumplings. Sounds vile. In 1958, Mao Ze­dong dis­as­trously or­dered the Chi­nese peo­ple to kill them all, but didn’t pro­vide a recipe for how to cook them. Most re­cently, French chefs were hor­ri­fied that the ‘del­i­cacy’ of the spar­row-sized Or­tolan Bunting (cooked in Ar­magnac) was no longer al­lowed on the menu. Cries of “in­croy­able!” likely rang out in the restau­rants of Paris. If spar­rows did speak, they would cer­tainly know more lan­guages than us, and I am sure they would have a few choice words for us. I want you to think about all this when you next see a spar­row. Rather than dis­miss­ing them as an LBJS and wish­ing they weren’t ob­scur­ing your view of some­thing more ex­cit­ing, con­sider their story. Their brav­ery should be cel­e­brated! The fact they are happy to be close to hu­mans, af­ter all we’ve done to them, is an act of trust. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be get­ting close to some­one who once thought I’d make a nice dumpling.

A ju­ve­nile spar­row (the yel­low gape is the give­away)

Clare en­joy­ing the chirp­ing of spar­rows as she sur­veys the river pass­ing her back gar­den

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