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The little brown sparrow and me

I have always enjoyed painting birds. I think its because I am drawn to their “lightness” and fragility.  As a child was obsessed by bird flight. I loved watching crows and seagulls riding the wind currents on a gusty day. I used to have dreams where I was floating around looking down on the world. I decided it was a matter of mind over matter. If I just thought myself into flight I would be able to fly. So I tried. I got on the garden table and launched myself into the air. Needless to say I had to have quite a few stitches on the brow of my nose. Look closely and you can still see the feint scar.

I was looking through my photographs of the paintings I have done over the last year or so and realised that I have quite a sparrow “thing” going on. Why sparrows? After all they are mostly brown. Not the most exciting plumage. Not like the comical puffins with their orange bills or the bold little robins with the red chest. Brown with a bit of white.

I love sparrows. Let me let you why.  They are tiny finch-like birds. They have stout bodies, rounded wings and broad heads, with deep, conical bills. These are designed this way for eating seeds. The brown females are very difficult to see on the earth. The males have smart black bibs.  These humble thing have managed to colonise most of the world. They are lively and feisty little creatures. They hop on the ground in a jaunty manner. They are certainly not glamorous, and they don’t even sing songs as such, but make lots of loud chirps and cheeps. They are noisy and gregarious creatures.

I like these noisy chirps and cheeps, they make me think of summer. They always seem to be friendly chaps. I have watched a gang of them in the hedgerow jumping from branch to branch and and cheeping. I once had the fright of seeing a sparrow hawk swoop down on a rose bush, in my parent’s back garden, populated with jumping sparrows! The hawk wasn’t lucky. The little brown birds vanished from sight.

Sparrow are tiny almost insignificant creatures yet they get a mention in the New Testament for that very reason: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.” They were clearly also ubiquitous in the middle east two thousand years ago.

Many eons ago, I was a Medievalist. I did a doctorate and even lectured on the world that existed over thousand years ago.  One of my favourite quotes about the nature of human existence come from a Medieval monk, Bede, who lived in the most northerly part of England in the 7th Century AD: – “The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.”― Ecclesiastical History of the English People 

Finally, who wasn’t mesmerised by Burt Lancaster as Robert Stroud and the first little bird he cares for in the 1962 movie, “Birdman of Alcatraz“? I was a big fan of Burt Lancaster anyway, but add some tiny birds and I was totally gripped by this film when I first saw it as a child. The first bird he cares for looks like a sparrow to me, its hard to tell as the film is in black and white. The later ones, I think are canaries (judging from the film poster). What do you think?

It WAS a sparrow!

Recently, the little sparrow hasn’t been doing so well in the UK. Monitoring suggests a severe decline in the UK house sparrow population, recently estimated as dropping by 71 per cent between 1977 and 2008 with substantial declines in both rural and urban populations!

tresp 002 (Tommy Holden) (A)-200pxHowever, there is a small sliver lining to this big black cloud, while the decline in England continues, Breeding Bird Survey data indicate recent population increases in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Also, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Garden Bird Feeding Survey data from the last two winters shows that more of them are turning to our garden feeding stations. I know that there are plenty in my local park in Brynmill, as I was watching yesterday morning through a large one way glass window in the Discovery Centre. This window enables visitors to view birds in their natural habitat without disturbing them. I hope the cheeky sparrows continue to thrive here and elsewhere in the UK.