Sparrows are among the most adaptable – or persistent, or omnipresent — of God’s creatures, which is perhaps why He keeps His eye on them. I do too, joyfully.
Outside my window are two suet-cake feeders sold on the claim that only clinging birds – woodpeckers, nuthatches — can manage them. Sparrows, everyone knows, can’t cling upside down, hanging from a toehold on the wire mesh.
I glance out now: Two house sparrows are eating suet. One stays up by beating its wings as relentlessly as a hummingbird — another skill everyone knows sparrows don’t have. The other is . . . clinging upside down. In fact, several of the sparrows that flock to my offerings have learned to hang like circus acrobats while they scarf down suet.
Also outside my window is a feeder exclusively for goldfinches. It’s a clear plastic tube, punctuated by pegs on which the birds perch. The feeding ports aren’t above the pegs, as with most feeders, but below. To get a beakful of Nyger seed — thistle, which is manna to all finches — a bird must tip upside down, feet clamped on the perch-peg. House finches and purple finches can’t do it; they’re too heavy. Nor, supposedly, can sparrows.
But no one told the sparrows: They fairly feasted on thistle when I first hung that feeder.
They can’t now, because I shortened the perch-pegs – nipping off a little at a time, seeking the length suitable to goldfinches but to no one else. The pegs ended up a full half-inch shorter. Goldfinches are svelte compared to chunky sparrows, who simply cannot clamp both feet firmly on the now-stubby pegs, and so can’t tip over and nibble the Nyjer.
They still try occasionally, though: I watch them land on a peg, flutter for balance and try to hang their heads. None – so far– has done it. They lose their grip, fall off the peg and spread their wings to fly away. I won’t be astonished, though, if someday a sparrow manages to land one-footed with a grip firm enough to tip over and have lunch.
I’m a lifelong birder; my late wife and I traveled the globe, and made birdwatching part of – sometimes the central purpose of – every trip.
· I remember, in the Argentine Andes, watching two immense condors strut and preen to win the approval of a female. She finally chose. The winner folded a four-foot-long wing around her, so help me just as we might put an arm around a shoulder, and the unsuccessful suitor flapped up and soared away.
Sparrow courtship can’t match that.
· One morning in the mild blue waters of the Galapagos, we swam with the little foot-and-a-half-long penguins named for and indigenous to that island chain. They’d become so accustomed to human visitors that one swam up to look me in the eye through my snorkel plate. It may have been an illusion, but I felt I could have reached forward to give it a love tap.
Sparrows can’t even swim.
· In Jamaica, we watched a male magnificent frigate bird – also known as a man-o’-war — inflate his wattle to win the favor of a female. A bird with a seven-foot wingspan, comparable to an American bald eagle’s, he flew around with a giant fleshy red balloon bobbing below his beak, fully earning the magnificence of his name.
I’m pretty sure sparrows don’t even have wattles.
· Somewhere behind what was then still an Iron Curtain, we listened spellbound to the courtship ritual of two European white storks. More than three feet tall, wingspans almost as broad as the frigate bird’s, storks clap their bright orange, seven-inch beaks like giant castanets. They’re mute, and communicate by beak-claps. (So one might argue that a telegrapher’s Morse code is a better metaphor than a flamenco dancer’s castanets. But mating storks’ clatter is loud enough to drown out any telegrapher’s key – or castanets, for that matter.)
Sparrows don’t clap their beaks. Or perhaps I don’t hear them because they’re so small.
Although my most vivid birding memories involve courting rituals, there were other unsparrow-like memorable moments:
· Hummingbirds in the mountain rain forests of Costa Rica buzzed around my wife’s bright red rain parka, as though thinking she must be some giant new flower and searching for the nectar.
· In Jamaica, we sat on the patio of an old lady who had trained hummingbirds to drink from airline liquor bottles filled with sugar water, and even to perch on one’s finger if one held the bottle of sweet treat motionless enough.
· Once, high in the Andes — and again in the uplands of Kenya — we saw huge flocks of pink flamingoes stooping to comb the water with their sieve-like curved bills, dredging up crustaceans and other things to eat.
· In Nicaragua, we watched Montezuma oropendolas weave nests two feet long, and some even longer: Huge hanging socks, at the toe of which the females incubated their eggs for two weeks.
And then there are sparrows, prosaic by comparison.
Don’t demean them, though. During China’s “Great Leap Forward,” Mao Zedong labelled them one of the country’s “Four Pests,” and urged villagers to exterminate them. They almost did. Two years later, that policy was declared an ecological disaster. Sparrows had long eaten huge quantities of insects, and without them rice harvests were down. China went back to its historic view that sparrows are auspicious, and that having them nest in one’s home brings good luck.
In the latter half of the last century, one of the best-known voices in the Caribbean was that of a calypso singer in Trinidad who called himself Mighty Sparrow. Calypso as a popular song style is all but dead, but the singer is still with us; he had a PBS special last April.
House sparrows, as plain as birds can get, don’t even have much of a song. Nonetheless, I view them joyfully – doing whatever it takes, turning headstands if need be, to make a living in a hard world. Praise the mighty sparrow.
First published in Issue 10 of Open Door Magazine July 1, 2021