Wednesday 21 August 2019

Country Life: Sunshine sparrows seek the scraps

FADING: The house sparrow
FADING: The house sparrow

Joe Kennedy

The adolescent house sparrow (Passer domesticus), the humblest of small birds, elegant and brown,was poking in the dust for mites between worn courtyard flagstones of an ancient fortress.

It made its anxious way around my feet as I sat on an abutment in the wall shade away from noonday sun. Mankind's presence didn't bother it or any of its few companions, where about 20 people were hearing Mass outside a tiny oratory, set in walls guarding a river mouth from the 17th century. Across an estuary was a similar fortification. The tidal waters between them shimmered in the morning's brightness.

Later, sitting outside a cafe I fed scraps to more seasoned birds hunting about and beneath the tables. Their philosophy seemed to be: grab, fly off and quickly return.

Across the road, overlooking a magnificent vista of beach and sea, stood a palatial villa with dense gardens of trees and shrubs, the birds' bolt hole and nightly roost.

I thought of another particular flock. As evenings drew in, hundreds used to gather on a tree outside the building where I stayed, settling for the night after much gossipy chatter. This usually began about 6pm. As I set out to eat, they, having eaten all day, made themselves comfortable. Street and building lights warmed their abode.

Then, having been away, they were gone when I returned. That was a shock and I blamed the activities of landscapers and tree trimmers. But they had only moved their parliament around a corner. At least I so assumed. But there are so many sparrow families it would be difficult to tell.

Dublin used be like that but sparrows once abundant in suburban pockets are now rare. They had been so numerous and socially active that one naturalist wrote that their "antics provoked indignation". They are sort of sex maniacs, you see, copulating in a public way, breeding prodigiously.

It was always so. The ancient Egyptians recorded it and so did Shakespeare in Measure for Measure: "Sparrows must not build on this house because they are lecherous." (Act3, scene2). The Romans kept them as pets. The poet Catullus mourned the loss of a girlfriend's bird: passer mortuus est meae puella ("my girl's darling whom she loved more than her eyes").

Sparrows' rate of reproduction was once phenomenal and millions of birds populated six continents.The Chinese tried to wipe them out. In Europe, thousands were trapped, and eaten, to cull flocks ravaging grain crops. Sparrow pie was once a popular dish in parts of rural England. But about 50 years ago a crash began and numbers fell by about 90pc in Britain and Ireland. An estimated six million birds have gone.

Scientists have suggested various reasons, the most obvious one being hunger. Modern farming practices with cleaner yards, weed control and little spilled grain have taken a toll. Public parks are carefully landscaped; pesticides and herbicides are sprayed about trees and pathways.

Food supply in winter is vital for all birds apart from sparrows. And it is just not there.

Joe Kennedy reports occasionally from Spain and Portugal

Sunday Independent

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