The dawn chorus outside my window is not the melody of songbirds. It is the sociable badinage of the morning’s posse of sparrows, congregated in the gutter under the roof. It is surprisingly loud. One doesn’t usually think of sparrows as raucous, but this early chirping is piercing. I know why they are there, of course. They are waiting for me to appear in the courtyard below in my dressing gown, jug in hand, ready to serve their breakfast.
As soon as I emerge the racket ceases. They fly down as one from the gutter into the branches of the small trees and shrubs, waiting to seize their seed. Once I withdraw, the mesh of the feeder is immediately covered in a moving mass of brown feathers, jostling and bickering. I make a cup of tea and sit and watch the melee; the modest pale brown of the females, the darker brown topcoat, grey waistcoat and black bib of the males, the flailing stubby wings of the fledglings waiting to be fed. A carrion crow arrives looking for an opportunity to grab a morsel, sending all of them whirling up into the pear tree momentarily, chirping defiance.
Sparrows are not the only visitors to the feeder. We are also visited by the usual favourites – blue tits, great tits, chaffinches, robin, blackbirds. But when the sparrows descend in force it is hard for other small birds to compete. Sparrows are flocking birds, with a fine instinct for air traffic control. Although there is constant high-speed action in and out of the feeder, they never collide. But a singleton great tit has two or three near misses on the way in and has to recover on a plant pot. The robin eschews the crowds altogether and waits for a quiet moment. The goldfinches have a dedicated nyger feeder which their beaks alone can manage; they peck away in smug exclusiveness. But the sparrows rule and I’m proud to have them. For reasons that are poorly understood, their numbers have plummeted nationally. In some urban areas they have disappeared altogether. But here in Berwick, a town of stone walls full of convenient crannies and with plenty of rough ground and open space, they flourish. I think I can take some of the credit. During the breeding season they get through literally sacks of seed. It is my personal contribution to sparrow conservation.
They are not exotic or special. They don’t take astonishing migrations or sing wonderful melodies. They have boring brown plumage and opportunistic morals. But I love them just the same. They are so full of brashness and life, so bold and ready for adventure. It is impossible to feel depressed when you are watching sparrows. They fill me with joy.
When we first arrived, I used conventional hanging feeders. They were soon mobbed by the local vandals – flocks of starlings, feral pigeons, carrion crows and startlingly huge herring gulls from the estuary. What to do? In the RSPB catalogue I found a ground feeder – a tray on low legs with a separate wire mesh cover, with adjustable mesh that could exclude all but the smallest visitors. The small birds soon learnt to hop through it. The only problem was rain, which reduced the feed to a soggy pulp. Our handyman neighbour solved the problem with a specially designed wooden roof stand that could be lifted over the whole contraption. It is a perfect bird house. It can also accommodate large numbers of birds at a time, unlike conventional hanging feeders. Perfect for sparrows.
The bread and butter of the feeding regime is sunflower seeds and there are always a few birds dutifully pecking away at them. But once or twice a day the regime is enlivened with the addition of buggy nibbles. These are another inspired creation from the RSPB – small beak-sized pellets of suet enriched with dried mealworms. The arrival of the buggy nibbles is the MacDonalds Moment of the day. Within minutes the air is suddenly a-whirr with wings. Twenty or thirty sparrows at a time dive in and out of the feeder, grabbing a nibble and re-emerging to eat it in relative peace outside. Meanwhile buccaneering starlings, who have observed this behaviour, lie in wait to pounce on them and grab their nibble. The robbed sparrow takes a few moments to understand what has happened. He looks around in vain for the missing pellet. But sparrow-like, he doesn’t repine. He’s soon back in there grabbing again.
The mood is not always so buoyant. A large flock of sparrows inevitably attracts raptors, in our case either the swift-moving local hobby or the sparrowhawk. The hobby depends on speed, arrowing through the passage alongside the feeder at breathtaking speed, seizing a sparrow on the way. The sparrowhawk is fast too, but more bullying. If the first flight fails, he will strut around under the bushes on his long yellow legs to terrorise the hiding birds into flight, fierce eyes gleaming, sharp claws hungry for prey. Unimaginably terrifying, if you happen to be a sparrow. He is ten times their size, with sleek grey wings and a rosy underbelly, merciless and powerful. He has no fear of other predators. When I go out to scare him away he grips the roof of the feeder in his yellow claws and stares back at me. I am caught in a familiar ambivalence. He is magnificent in his fierce splendour. He is a raptor and it is his job to terrorise prey. Why does Nature have to be like this? Why is it so beautiful and so cruel?
Often I don’t see the attack. All I know of it is a sudden silence. There is no chirping in the gutter, no rustle of wings in the bushes. For two or three days there is not a bird to be seen. It feels like a period of mourning. Then gradually, cautiously, they return. They have to eat. I agonise about whether I should be feeding them, making them vulnerable to attack. But if not here, then somewhere else; the sparrowhawk has to eat too.
I comfort myself that God sheds tears for sparrows too, that even this most insignificant of birds is contained in the Divine mercy.
‘Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And not one of them shall fall to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.’ (Matthew 10:29)
Or, as Shakespeare was to put it sixteen hundred years later
‘Not a whit. We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.’