this is not a review: ‘the triumphant tale of the house sparrow’, by jan thornhill

 

I was surprised and delighted by the adulty appeal of Jan Thornhilll’s The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow … technically a picture book (with wonderful illustrations) but the kind that bears reading by all ages for a sort of Coles Notes (do they still exist?) version of a subject that can then be pursued in longer form if you need/want more info. Though, honestly, there’s plenty here, enough that after reading it will surely be  impossible to look at this bird quite the same way.

Given the title, and the opening sentence…

“Behold the most despised bird in human history.”

… we can (rightly) assume there will be some adventurous backstory to follow, i.e. how did it get from Most Despised to Triumphant?

Also, and not that I think about sparrows a lot, but I didn’t know they were so universally (and for thousands of years) disliked. I assumed some people just didn’t like them in the way some people don’t like clowns. (Which is completely understandable.)

But no. It’s much bigger than that and, most interesting of all, their dislikeability has a lot to do with us, with our lifestyle. Because what we know for sure is they love to hang around us, like those friends who think we’re all having such a good time that they forget to go home.

This wasn’t always the case.

What happened was, we invented agriculture.

We began growing fields of grain and the sparrow, a bird that used to migrate in search of food, suddenly didn’t need to leave town so it stayed and ate that nicely planted all you can eat buffet. It came into cities and towns too, because we had horses that were fed buckets of grain. And it hung around our houses because of crumbs from tablecloths shaken out the back door, and several other surprising sources. Long story short, it became a house sparrow.

And we got cranky.

In Egypt the sparrow surplus was handled by using them as pet food. (Often found in the mummified stomachs of beloved animals.)

In Germany there was a sparrow bounty, a required number of heads had to be handed in or fines were imposed.

In China people were encouraged to bang pots twenty four hours a day in grain fields to stop the birds from landing, which worked exceptionally well… so well in fact that zillions of birds fell from the sky, exhausted and dead, and the crops died from an infestation of bugs that would have normally been eaten by the sparrows.

In cities they were noisy and just plain bothersome. In one incident, a single sparrow found its way into a large hall where a Guiness-records-sized domino display had been set up with millions of dominos… the sparrow landed and over 20,000 toppled over before they could stop the domino effect. But the bird was still in the building and naturally they worried about the other ten trillion dominos so they hired a professional hunter to come and shoot the bird, which is now stuffed in a museum. (The bird not the hunter.)

In a way, the sparrow’s biggest crime is its adaptability and how its population tends to increase along with our own. (Though we seem not to complain the same way about people numbers.)

However, mysteriously, and for some very many years now, sparrow numbers have been in decline. The Netherlands, for one, has declared them a protected species and, as Jan Thornhill points out, this might well beg some attention:

“Because the House Sparrow normally lives its whole life in a very small area, it can be a living indicator of pollutants in that place. To scientists, it is just like a canary in a coal mine — except that coal mine is our urban environment. Since the House Sparrow lives where we live, wouldn’t it be smart to figure out why it’s disappearing? What if the culprit is something that is as unhealthy for humans as it is for the House Sparrow?”

I think this book, generally, deserves all kinds of attention, not only as it relates to house sparrows, but what it represents in how we so often look at nature, what’s taken for granted, the problems we ourselves have created and now blame on the natural world, much of which is merely doing its best to tolerate us.

The picture book format works well because the amount of text is just right for that Coles Notes gleaning. Any less wouldn’t do the subject justice. But it’s also too much for a picture-book age child to absorb on their own, so it becomes ideal as a read-aloud-and-discuss. Followed, of course, by a sparrow finding expedition, photographs, drawings, and chirping!

So much to love here.

Also, would be brilliant in schools. (Do they still do nature as a subject?)

 

 

Purchased at Books Galore, in Port Perry.

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today’s walk

Uneventful.

Except for the daring blue heron that wades in the creek up to its icy blue thighs, and the black and white bird that watches from an overhead branch. No idea what it is. Magpie?  But we don’t get those here… I haven’t seen one since Edmonton in the eighties when everything was a revelation. I had a friend there who grew up on a dairy farm so we spent a lot of time in the country. That’s where I learned that magpies aren’t exactly the most beloved birds. Also, that you can drink directly from a cow. No middleman or cartons required. This was big. I didn’t believe it at first. Could not fathom that a tin bucket in the kitchen was what I was meant to ladle milk from for my Cheerios. One afternoon I took a walk in the back forty, picked some flowers, brought them inside, found a jar and filled it with water, a gift for the dinner table. When my friend’s mother came in she said Where did those stink weeks come from? It’s true that there was a very distinct and un-gift-like odour in the room… I’d assumed it was the fermenting milk.
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But today’s walk.

Uneventful, except for the above and a dove too— just because the sight of them always makes me happy. They needn’t be doing anything and they usually aren’t; something about their shape pleases me, the way they look to the left, the right, left again, as if always curious, forever surprised at the sameness of things. And a blackbird soaring above yellow and crimson leaves, circling and dipping and dipping some more, just because it can. A sparrow hiding under a Toyota Camry, or maybe just keeping out of the rain.
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And a man in his eighties, wrinkled from laughter, bright-eyed and sprightly, carrying two logs from the back of a house where I hear a chain saw working. He tells me he’s looking for volunteers to help… I tell him I’ll help him look, send them all his way. I circle the block and when I pass his house again, he’s there carrying more logs. He laughs, calls out, says in a wink-wink tone, “You haven’t forgotten where you’re going have you??” I realize the fact that I’m carrying a full shopping bag makes it look as though I should be heading home with my groceries, not strolling about the neighbourhood. I don’t tell him the bag is full of litter… I’m simply pleased that I’m finally worthy of insider status to an octogenarian’s joke…
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when a tree falls…

 

There are no pictures.

Well, yes, there are, actually, pictures. The morning before we cut down the ancient juniper, I took a few. They’re not great—not meant to be great—and say far less than the expected thousand words. They certainly don’t say that the tree and I spent the better part of twenty years together.

It was already here when we moved in. Already quite mature with a slight tilt, which, a few years later, turned into a near fatal lean that required the installation of a serious rope and pulley system to keep it from keeling right over. The system worked well, but as the tree grew it continued to totter ever more precariously. Eventually branches began to sag and turn brown and the whole thing just seemed to be struggling.

It might even have been considered an eyesore.

Though not by us.

Its only real flaw in our view was the increasing potential for a squashed Mr. Reilly, the neighbour’s furry new addition, who likes to play with his chew toys on the lawn in almost the exact spot the behemoth juniper would land if the rope ever gave way.

The truth is it should have come down years ago.

But what year?

Not the one the cardinals had a nest there. And not the one when the blue jays did. And not in winter when robins [who for some reason no longer fly south] swarm the tree for its berries, which is interesting because there’s no other time I can recall seeing robins do anything en masse. The serviceberries are devoured by one bird at a time. Worms too… one, maybe two robins at the most, wait while I dig over the vegetable bed. No swarms.

But in winter, maybe because there’s less food to choose from and they don’t trust each other to share, or maybe because the berries, when fermented in their bellies make a fine schnapps… they arrive at the juniper tree by the dozens. Thirty, forty birds, easily, at times.

I’ve never captured it on film. You’ll have to trust me.

So now it’s gone. I didn’t watch the sawing. I took pictures and said goodbye and thank you and hey, remember all those crazy robins… good times, eh?  And then I went inside and pickled some peppers and made zucchini soup.

I’m glad they left the stump. There was some talk of renting a stump grinder. I counted the rings. Thirty five. Google tells me this is admirable for a tree of its kind.

In a different world, a wilder one, for instance, in a house surrounded by woods or fields, not neighbours, I would have left this tree to die a natural death, to continue keeping the robins drunk and happy all winter, to be the ancestral home to many more feathery generations, to keel over whenever it bloody well pleased, knowing that wildlife is clever enough to get out of the way.

As it is, I miss the view of its gnarly branches from my window. We’ve planted new junipers in its place, smaller ones, young and cute and strong and straight, but as yet, without character. The birds fly right past. I wouldn’t blame them if they stopped and lodged a complaint… but they’re already adapting to the new landscape. And so, I guess, will I.