Sparrow Street

Day for this, day for that. Social media is jammed with ‘world days’ for just about everything now, but World Sparrow Day on March 20th caught my eye – a bit like the real bird, busy and confident in our urban shadow as if it were a small feathered fox. 

Tree sparrow2

This is a tree sparrow, a rarity in England these days but abundant in the Philippines. The unevenness of nature is one of its marvels – some species paint the skies with a million silhouettes while others are known only to the most inquisitive scientists. That is not random; it reflects variation in whatever food and habitat is required, and in how wild things rise and fall on humans rhythms. This little bird, this sweet chirp in the warm grass, is perched firmly on human civilisation. Our crops feed it, our buildings house it, and our boats give it safe passage. In fact, it may have travelled to the Philippines with the Spanish fleet.

But tree sparrows tell us something else. So confident, so confiding, they unwittingly star in one of the bleakest parables of unintended consequences that we as a species have yet managed to write. Mao declared a brutally effective war on sparrows in 1950s China as part of the Four Pests campaign. It was to protect crops, of course, but without considering that sparrows actually eat crop-destroying insects. The destruction of sparrows contributed to a famine which killed up to 55 million people.

It is one lesson that should be told in every school and parliament in the world: think, from all angles, before doing. 

Tree sparrow

But sparrows are birds of the present, and squabble and flutter as if yesterday is in the past. They still link us to nature, building a noisy, unruled life alongside commence and cluttered streets. Like foxes, they are the flag-bearers of a much broader collection of mostly shy wildlife that threads its way past us. When not watching sparrows in the Philippines, I was wondering how to find those others. I set up my my trailcam on the off chance it would catch something unusual, and it happens, it did.

The large dark birds in the first part of this video are barred rail, a common but extremely reclusive species of open landscapes and farmland. The toads are probably Philippine toads Ingerophrynus philippinicus, and I’m not even going to hazard a guess at the bat. I might have got more species except that the trailcam was knocked over by a magnitude 6 earthquake three days into its adventure. Here is the water cooler reacting to the 5.9 magnitude aftershock.

Perhaps that is the final lesson from sparrows. They lean on us, and that is not particularly safe; but we in turn stand on an unstable planet, and no dustings of urban glory will ever quite hide our need to remember that.

Tree Metropolis

So, Philippines.

Yes, I was in Mindanao earlier this month, my third visit to this land of numbers: 7,641 islands, about 109 million people, and trees – who can say how many trees? A hot, wet land under a sun on hyperspeed: it rises in a rush, soars scorchingly high into the sky, and collapses into a sunset twelve hours after dawn, when absurdly the air feels even stiffer. This is the kind of wild artistry that grows rainforests, and left to its own devices, the Philippines would be smothered by them, feathered out by mangrove swamps on the coast and tropical pinewoods in the mountains.

The reality, of course, is that most of the lowland rainforest has been cleared; the tall, straight trunks make for good timber, and the endangered lapnisan or agarwood has the unwelcome honour of being the world’s most expensive tree due to its wood being poached to produce oud perfume. But even where the primary forest has gone, the secondary growth is thick, and supports a fair variety of trilling, busy wild things.

Red-keeled flowerpecker

Red keeled flowerpecker

Philippine brown shrike

Shrike

No tree is a solitary life. Even in the rawest habitats – salt deserts, say, or the arable deserts of modern agriculture – a tree is a lifebuoy seized by lichens, birds and invertebrates. In the tropics, they are grabbed by other plants too; orchids and ferns perch on their limbs and frame, in a manner of living known as epiphytic. Sometimes it is difficult to know where the tree ends and its army of piggy-backing guests begins.

Big tree

Trees produce food as well as support, but not freely. These young glossy starlings will deposit the seeds in their droppings, spreading the tree’s offspring far further than it could achieve through mere gravity.

glossy starling chicks

Humans also gather from trees. In the Philippines, plums and apples are imported exotics in the malls, but mangoes, bananas and passion fruits can be picked by hand. Cacao trees, the birthplace of chocolate, sport their pods.

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And this is rambutan, brightening up its parent tree.

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For all of the trees, the sun feeds them, and the moon sets behind them.

And the next day brings the pattern again.

Moonset

Stories under the Durian Tree

Philippines, March 2023

If heat has an anthem, perhaps it is something like this:

Coppersmith barbet, singing stories of feathered things in the land we call the Philippines. Birds know it better than we ever will, swooping and squabbling over trees that seem to be standing on tiptoes to outdo each other.

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Past durian stalls and stray dogs, over telephone wires and construction sites.

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Living their lives, learning their land, even as the millions of people in Mindanao do the same. In the heat and the hubbub, amidst the jeepneys and basketball courts, and the birds remain wild, but perched on the apparatus of humanity – or on the plants that we are pleased to provide.

Asian glossy starling

Glossy starling

Collared kingfisher

Collared kingfisher

Olive-backed sunbird

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Chestnut munia

Munias in grass

And the durian tree watches on, its fruits ready to fall.

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