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