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.

15 thoughts on “Sparrow Street

  1. I wasn’t expecting you to go from sparrows to earthquakes! And a 6 is quite hefty. I completely missed world sparrow day, but you’re right that we don’t see nearly so many tree sparrows as in the past. The house variety still seems pretty strong locally, or at least in our garden!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Days in the tropics are full of surprises! Yes, it was a big enough quake. I was inside a house at the time and the floor shook for about thirty seconds. Well, swayed really, jolting back and forth. It instantly reminded me of that earthquake simulator at the Natural History Museum so my respect for that has gone up!

      House sparrows seem to be doing okay in their favoured locations. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tree sparrow in England, oddly enough.


      1. I used to see tree sparrows on the Sussex campus, but it’s now some time since I’ve been there. Quakes are weird! I was in Los Angeles when a 5.2 quake hit. More odd than scary, and I kept wondering whether it was the beer until I saw the (small) cracks in the the road.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I so enjoy your trail videos! The idea of killing an entire species to protect crops is so foolish and idiotic and in the end was so tragic and devastating, it’s hard to believe that anyone would come up with it as a solution. People can be so stupid. I agree that there are now many “world” days.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Lynette. I wasn’t sure if the cam would get anything in the Philippines so was pleased that it caught a few surprises.

      Yes, Mao’s sparrows are a horrendous story and one that needs to be told more often.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What happened to your sparrows? We call them English sparrows here and are ubiquitous in urban settings. I call them McDonald’s birds as they are found at nearly every single one, gleaning crumbs! I think they have colonized the planet just as your forebears did, who probably brought their sparrows with them to remind them of England! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We don’t really know. The common species in England (and your “McDonald’s sparrow” LOL) is the house sparrow Passer domesticus. The tree sparrow Passer montanus is considered its shy rural cousin in the UK but lives close to people in the Philippines and elsewhere. House sparrows are still a frequent sight here but have declined significantly, possibly due to less food and fewer nesting sites. Tree sparrows are in serious trouble in the UK, but sadly that’s typical of many of our farmland birds.

      House sparrows certainly don’t miss a chance to hitch a ride! Reputedly they are actually native to the Middle East so were travelling with farming cultures even before they assumed British citizenship.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I like sparrows. They are so much part of our everyday life that I can’t imagine a world without them. House sparrow is a symbol of Belgrade, the capital of my old country. Unfortunately, due to a lost habitat, pollution, noise – just to mention some of them, population of sparrows in Europe declined for about 600 million in last 40 years (I think this is from Bird Life International, but I can’t find a link now). If things stay the same they might disappear in next 50 years.
    I laughed at those glowing eyes in the dark – something I don’t want to see while backcountry camping 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, sparrows are humanity’s shadow, and it is sad that they are in decline in many areas. Hopefully we can learn to save the ones that are still here.

      I am now impressed by how rarely toads blink!


  5. Breaks my heart how the ignorance and arrogance of humans destroys nature. I adore watching the sparrows in my garden, such sweet and characterful little birds 🥰

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s