Amongst the Sparrows5 April 2018
One of my favourite small pleasures in life is to sit with an espresso and watch the sparrows—something that can be experienced in almost every city around the world. There is nothing quite so charming as the way sparrows move through this confined space: they hop cautiously, heads twisting and bodies twitching in a never-ending assessment of threats and opportunities. Finally, opportunity arises as a crumb falls from a piece of biscotti—and in they swoop.
The story behind our cohabitation with sparrows is long and rich. They have become brazen enough to hop towards occupied café tables because of their excellent adaptation to urban environments. Ornithologists have discovered some sparrows are canny enough to make use of automatic sliding doors, while others have been spotted using cigarette butts in their nests to repel parasites. The sparrow is also one of the few birds able to grasp doors’ and windows’ value as exits and entrances. So you’ll certainly never see a sparrow bounce frantically off a window in a fruitless attempt at escape!
This combination of tiny proportions and obvious intelligence is key to the sparrow’s charm.
I am not the first to appreciate the sparrow—literature and religion have long recognised them. The appear in everything from Egyptian hieroglyphs to bible passages, fairy tales and the works of Shakespeare. But perhaps the most glorious interpretation comes from the Roman poet Catullus who, a century before the birth of Christ, wrote a pair of poems celebrating our tiny feathered friends. He wrote how his girlfriend could always turn to her sparrow for “innocuous fun” or “a bit of escape … from her pain”. Indeed, the sparrow was held in such high esteem by them both that in one poem Catullus admits to an unnerving sort of sexual jealousy, and in another curses the god of the underworld for the “monstrous crime” of the sparrow’s death. These poems in turn inspired half a dozen paintings in the pre-Raphaelite movement alone—among some of the sparrow’s most charming appearances on the canvas. But this human–sparrow cultural traffic isn’t just one-way. A Tokyo study that placed sparrows into a tiny, purpose-built ‘art gallery’ found that they have strong opinions on humans’ paintings—five out of six feathered aesthetes prefer cubist artists like Picasso and Matisse to the more staid impressionism of Monet and Cézanne.
The sparrow’s presence in Australia’s cafés is a story of colonisation, for they aren’t Australian at all. They were first introduced by the British from India in the 1860s, later interbreeding with European sparrows brought directly from the Mother Country. The human dimension of colonisation, such as the spread of English and Christianity, is well-known. Less well-known is the biological dimension of colonisation, or the transformation of the very ecosystem to more closely resemble the settlers’ home. (Terraforming—or consciously reshaping a natural environment to be more genial to newly-arrived settlers—is not just science fiction.) Settlers achieve this by selecting certain plants, animals and birds to act as ‘junior partners’ in the project of settlement. Some are chosen on commercial or practical grounds: others for sentimental reasons. In Victoria this meant streets lined with oaks and countrysides of bleating sheep. When it wasn’t thirty-five degrees and the kangaroos hopped out of sight, one could (with a bit of nostalgia and a heavy squint) almost be back in Cheshire.
The sparrow was one of these migrant animals, a tiny part of the process of building a second England. They were initially intended to act as pint-sized insect exterminators, but they also possessed an undeniable charm. Edward Wilson, founder of the Acclimatisation Society responsible for importing European animals into Melbourne, remarked that he “ha[d] a kindly feeling for the sparrow for his friendly confidence”. And indeed, by 1867 a leading London newspaper reported that “sparrows now hop about and twitter at the antipodes”. England was three months’ sail a from Melbourne—but all a homesick Englishman need do to hear the birdsong of his childhood was fling open a window.
Perhaps it is this geniality that has spared sparrows of the popular loathing that attaches to fellow migrant scavengers like the common myna. There is an undeniable evolutionary advantage in being able to elicit “a kindly feeling” from the most destructive species on earth—in being cute. Maybe that’s why in today’s Melbourne we have the joy of sharing our cappuccinos and biscotti with so many of these little feathered hopscotch artists.