The sparrow? There is no bird so sweetly rude

Sat, Feb 4, 2012, 00:00

ANOTHER LIFE:IN LAST WEEK’S COLUMN, a lonely blackbird launched his territorial song. Since then, a wren has chanced a bold solo, his tail well cocked, and a great tit has been pumping his bicycle tyre endlessly under the trees. As I lop away overgrown hedges, and shreds of last year’s nests come tumbling out, I could almost be fooled it’s the new beginning of spring.

Loudest of all, but little to do with it, a concatenation of chirrups bursts from the hawthorn over the septic tank – our house sparrows asserting their residency in a session of social singing. This could be their final chorus. One cock is away in his own shadow, pacing himself through a purposeful offer of fidelity. Others will spread to the big, prickly rose bush as it thickens into leaf. On our gutters they choose the corners, for holes with an all-round view.

A dozen arrived on the acre perhaps a decade ago, drawn by the dangling bird feeders. At times I’ve resented their ganging-up at the nuts, elbowing aside goldfinches and blue tits in a billow of subfusc feathers. To shame myself out of such speciesism, I consider the lifelong obsession with sparrows of James Denis Summers-Smith.

Born in 1920 in Glasgow, and turned on to birds by an uncle, a country parson, on childhood holidays in Co Donegal, Summers-Smith zeroed in on sparrows in 1947, becoming the world authority on the genus Passer.

Sparrows are not finches or buntings, or even weavers, but the most successful family of seed-eaters on the planet.

Summer-Smith is still going strong, one hopes, at his home in North Yorkshire, having delivered his self-declared swansong – at 91 – at a bird conference in Newcastle last year. He was speculating that the much-discussed loss of the house sparrow from central London was due not, as widely thought, to the absence of insects for young chicks but to lethal pollution from diesel exhaust.

The house sparrow, Passer domesticus, is just one of the 26 sparrow species across the world that have figured in Summers-Smith’s five books, but its remarkable natural range stretches from my garden (and the hedges of the islands) to the east coast of Siberia. It’s found north to the Arctic Circle and south to north Africa, the Middle East, India and Sri Lanka, and is abundant, thanks to introductions, in North and South America, southern Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

In much of Asia, it is replaced by the slightly smaller tree sparrow, Passer montanus, a perky bird displayed last week on RTÉ news by a BirdWatch Ireland ornithologist. As viewers saw, the tree sparrow has a deep chestnut crown – not the grey of the house sparrow – and black spots on its white collar. Unlike the house sparrow, too, both sexes of the tree sparrow have the typical black bib of the male.

In the rice paddies of China, Passer montanushas been ranked as a greedy pest, and millions were shot on the orders of Chairman Mao. The bird was later reinstated for its useful toll on insect grubs, but millions still end up in tins, frozen or smoked, for export as a dubious delicacy. In Britain and Ireland, the coexistence of house and tree sparrows is relatively recent and has seen several swings in population, one of which has now engaged the BirdWatch Ireland researchers.

In Britain, the tree sparrow’s range has shrunk dramatically, whereas Ireland’s eastern counties have seen a rapid growth. Confined mainly in the 19th century to the coast around Dublin and Malahide, the bird then increased and spread inland through Leinster. The latest fieldwork from the 2007-11 Bird Atlas found even bigger numbers breeding as far as Carlow, Kilkenny and Laois. The tree sparrow shown to viewers was netted in a garden in Co Kildare.

Summers-Smith has made the point that, in Britain, the tree sparrow was typically a bird of farmland with hedgerows, or even light woodland, whereas in Ireland they “tend to be birds of houses, living in villages, rather than in open country”. Ireland’s house sparrows are stable in numbers but probably at a far lower level than in the age of thatched cabins and horses and myriad plots of oats. Their damage today is typically quoted by gardeners complaining at their habit of biting pieces out of crocus petals for no apparent reason (really, perhaps, for midges that rest there, out of the wind).

A century ago, Co Meath’s Francis Ledwidge had no doubt of his affection for the sparrow: “There is no bird so half as harmless / None so sweetly rude as you, / None so common and so charmless, / None of virtues rude as you. / But for all your faults I love you, / For you linger with us still, / Though the wintry winds reprove you / And the snow is on the hill.”

Eye on nature

On Christmas Eve my wife and I noticed a strange bird drinking at our garden pond. According to the National Geographic’s The Birds of America it turned out to be an American robin.

Ronald Roulston, Bray, Co Wicklow

Recently, a flock of four strange ducks has been living in the pond at the end of Blessington Street, in the middle of Dublin. Three have markings like a female mallard and the fourth is mottled white, but they all have a distinctive red wedge-shaped marking at the base of the beak.

Keith Malcolm, Blackrock, Co Dublin

They are escaped ornamental ducks, from the photograph you sent. The brown- headed ones are Bahama pintail ducks and the white one a silver Bahama pintail duck.

We found a headless rabbit, missing its front legs, buried in a raised bed at the end of our small, walled garden. Could a fox drag a large rabbit over a wall?

Virginia Chipperfield, Ballybrack, Co Dublin

You’ll find a ground-level hole somewhere on the periphery of the garden.

I’ve been watching a bird on my feeder. It has a black chin, pinkish tones on the breast, dark streaking on the back and a forked tail. Could it be a lesser redpoll?

Niamh Lennon, Dundrum, Dublin

Yes.


Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or email viney@anu.ie. Please include a postal address