Let’s Talk about the Sparrow

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Sing to me about man’s inhumanity
And all the injustice you see
Sing sparrow, sing, little sparrow, sing
Sing about what to give
Sing about about how to live
I want you to sing your tune, sparrow
Oh, little sparrow, sing

-Marvin Gaye, “Sparrow”

You open the window to a familiar song that sounds like a string of short zips. Zip zip zip zip. Pause. Flutter. Zip zip zip zip. Then faster, then again.

Almost the exemplary tweet that you think of when someone mentions a bird chirp. And it is likely that this is the most common birdsong you’ve heard throughout your life. Its song sounds little and brown. Common. The peasant of birds.

Of course, it’s the house sparrow. I think I just heard birders everywhere sighing and rolling their eyes, moving along to the next article. But before you do… let’s talk about the sparrow for a second.

As a kid, I loved sparrows. My mother was, and still is, an avid birdwatcher, making sure that bird feeding was part of her daily morning ritual, along with tending to her flowers, feeding the dog, and finally getting us off to school on time. All before working as a nurse for eight, nine hours.

In the summer in Oklahoma, watching out our back window where she sprinkled all the birdseed, of course the little sparrows were my favorite. They’re just cute, you can’t deny it. They are small and precious and so… birdy. And their little songs just put you in a good mood. Ok, not at six o’clock on a Saturday morning right next to your window, but most of the time.

It’s understandable that most people just don’t really like sparrows or care to think about them; they’re kind of like city rats. They spread and dominate and never leave.

But are these birds really that detrimental to city life? Are they really just pests? As Rob Dunn said in an article for the Smithsonian, “We tend to regard common species poorly, if at all.” And here I thought humans thrived on routine, on familiarity.

And yet, I’ve seen many people with sparrow tattoos; a way to say, “Hey, I’m just trying to be normal here. Like this little rat bird.” While we may look the other way when they’re in our yard, something about their presence must speak to us on some level. It’s almost like the way we love our siblings for being themselves, while also wishing they’d jump off a cliff. Sparrows are familiar like our brothers and sisters.

My mother had, and still has, a bird clock in her kitchen, which sounds off different bird songs at every hour of every day. The same clock she’s had for twenty years. She doesn’t tire of it; it brings her comfort and consistency. The sparrow is there every day at two o’clock, saying hello and then waiting for his next turn.

I guess the sparrow itself is my bird clock. I see them everywhere in Chicago, unafraid of the bigger birds like pigeons, mourning doves, and robins that they have to fight with for food. Sparrows are patient like that, even if their movements are jerky and sporadic. These little tough guys stick it out through all seasons in Chicago, even in the coldest of winters, and often fight off other, rarer species of birds, pissing birders off even more.

Sparrows have a complicated social hierarchy. There are so many of them everywhere that one in each community eventually has to come forth to rule the roost. It’s all decided automatically by whichever male sparrow has the biggest patch of black feathers on his chest. From there, the rest of the bird minions seem to fall in line and never forget their place within the hierarchy. (Sound familiar?)

The presence of little sparrow colonies everywhere brings me comfort in the changing seasons, I can’t help it. I guess that’s what Marvin meant when he sang “I know the sparrow should sing / Sing on such a morning in spring / Oh sparrow, why don’t you sing?” If the sparrow disappears, then we know we’re screwed. Like cockroaches and rats, they would survive an apocalypse.

Maybe, then, there is some method to the madness of house sparrows’ plan to take over the world.

And I say, if these little fighters can do it, let them. We’ll just continue to be annoyed by them until that day comes. Here’s to you, sparrows!


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