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.
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.
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.