In 2014 a fledgling house sparrow entered my life. I named him Lotus, wishing him a peaceful life with the other disabled birds inhabiting an aviary-room in my home. But it soon became clear that sparrows don’t crave peace. They love noisiness, adventure and mischief: just three days after sparrow met human I was rushed to an emergency clinic, having had my eyeball punctured by a cheeky peck. During his first winter, as dusk approached each evening, Lotus would fly at my face screeching loudly, declaring his desire for me to leave his space; it was a different story in his second spring, when he chased me endlessly with quite a different intention, performing amorous dances, and expressing another kind of desire. Over the past seven years, Lotus and I have become firm friends. He likes to pull skin from my cuticles and hair from my head. He enjoys pecking my thumb and having a swing on my feet. I have laughed as he’s built huge nests the size of termite mounds made from newspaper he has shredded, as he’s bathed with joy in sand and water, and as he’s danced and sung for the sake of ‘romance’. Lotus is my soul-bird and my deepest connection to other-than-human worlds when I’m too humanful. To Lotus, I guess I am a safe-ish tree, a warm snuggle in big hair, a springtime lover, a featherless companion and sometimes a nuisance.
The ancestors of today’s house sparrows originated in Africa1 and are now found almost everywhere across the globe. They are “human specialists”,2 having naturally spread their range north and west into Europe and east across Asia, following people and exploiting our early horticultural farming practices, particularly wheat-farming, for around 12,000 years.3 Eventually as towns and cities emerged, built off the backs of grain-fed horses, sparrows settled in urbanized areas. The adaptability of these birds is demonstrated in the variety of places they choose to flock and nest, from 600 meters underground in a Yorkshire coal mine4 to 4,500 meters high in the Himalayan mountains.5 Their spread across the planet continues – as recently as 1990 sparrows established themselves in Iceland.6
The history of sparrow relocation is not always voluntary, however. Sometimes birds are blown on strong winds to new regions, sometimes they are accidental stowaways on ships. House sparrows have been also forcibly introduced by humans to North and South America, South Africa, Australasia and Hawai’i.7 Lotus lives in Aotearoa New Zealand where 100 of his kind were brought from England and released between 1866 and 1871. The birds’ introduction to these alien islands in the South Pacific was one result of the whimsy of colonial acclimatization projects which aimed to facilitate a comfortable familiarity for the increasing settler population missing the fauna and flora of the British Isles. It was also hoped that sparrows (called tiu by Māori) would dine on insects that were destroying crops planted for human consumption in the new colony.8 This latter hope was born of ignorance, as sparrows feast on bugs and worms only for the first few weeks of life, after which they much prefer seeds and fruit; therefore, just a few years after their introduction to New Zealand, Lotus' ancestors acquired the label of ‘pest’, partly because of their inclination to eat the same crops they were imported to protect, and partly because they loved to devour the grain reserved for humans, horses and other animals. In the late 1880s, the tables had turned and Sparrow Clubs were set up, not to foster an enjoyment of these birds, but rather to stamp them out of New Zealand. Sparrow Clubs were involved in poisoning grain the birds ate and paying schoolboys a bounty to crush sparrows’ eggs.9
Over time, since Aotearoa’s colonization by the British, sparrows, like many other introduced species including Australian brushtail possums, stoats and cats, have become scapegoats of this nation’s troubled colonial history.10 Instead of respecting these remarkably adaptable birds for their ability to survive long caged journeys by sea or as accidental stowaways on ships – instead of admiring their vibrant and cheeky presence across our islands – we have too often denigrated and persecuted them. Today in areas where they are vilified as pests they may be ‘controlled’ by using an anaesthetic in their food, which renders them unconscious or paralyzed and easily collected off the ground for so-called ‘humane’ disposal.11
It is important to point out that this pest narrative is not unique to Aotearoa New Zealand. In the 19th century, a similar fate befell sparrows forcibly introduced to New York from Liverpool, in the hope these birds would control the voracious caterpillars who feasted on Linden trees.12 Specifically, in 1856, fifty pairs of imported house sparrows received the utmost care in the home of the Brooklyn Institute’s caretaker, John McGeorge, as they waited out the cold winter months.13 According to sparrow historian Fernando do Campo, the birds were housed in a hidden backroom accessible via a dressing room, provided with plants and shrubbery indoors for their pleasure, and successfully released in the spring of 1857.14 Within thirty years of these initial liberations, however, sparrows were, like the caterpillars they were tasked with killing, declared to be vermin. They were outlawed for displacing native birds, ‘stealing’ grain, and leaving excrement around homes and other city buildings. Today in the USA, pest companies set up glue-traps at birdbaths and other sites where sparrows are known to perch; these cruel contraptions, as their name suggests, capture and hold fast to sparrows, eventually resulting in the death of birds due to starvation or dehydration.15 Even in regions where sparrows are considered to be indigenous, they may face denigration and exile.16 For example, the prominent 18th century French naturalist, Count de Buffon, condemned them in his 1749 treatise on birds, stating “[the sparrow] is extremely destructive, its plumage is entirely useless, its flesh indifferent food, its notes grating to the ear, and its familiarity and petulance disgusting.”17 Similarly, for centuries in the United Kingdom, sparrows were viewed as ‘pests’ and more bounty money was paid by clergy in South England for the slaughter of sparrows than any other ‘wild vermin’ put together.18 Lotus and I abhor discrimination against sparrows. We prefer the more generous take of 21st century ornithologist Mark Cocker, who argues, with respect to sparrows, that “we [humans] have made the whole world into their habitat, and dividing the bird’s range into places where it [sic] can be approved or condemned is arbitrary and possibly even meaningless.”19 It is also deeply anthropocentric: sparrows followed humans wherever we went, so if they are pests then many of us are too.20
Since 1758 house sparrows have also been known by their western scientific name of Passer domesticus, ‘passer’ being the Latin word for ‘sparrow’ and referring to the quick and active nature of these birds, and ‘domesticus’ meaning ‘of the home’. In fact, Passer domesticus was one of the first creatures to be taxonomized. These tiny descendants of dinosaurs carry more colloquial names, of course, associated with the regions they exist in, including spatzie or spotsie in North America (from the German ‘spatz’ for ‘sparrow’), spugs or spuggies in North England and spar, spadger, phip or philip in the South,21 the etymology of the latter two names possibly stemming from the sounds sparrows make.
Sparrows possess some remarkable anatomical and physiological features. Their triangular shaped beaks are finely developed for seed eating, along with the tip of their tongue which is equipped with an additional stiff bone (not present in other passerines) that permits seeds to be held more firmly for cracking.22 The brownish plumage of sparrows, and especially the supposedly drab feathers of females, is actually a very clever form of camouflage, protecting them from the myriad predators they encounter on a daily basis. Sparrows shut their eyes when sleeping but when awake they do not blink; their eyes stay open and are cleaned and lubricated by the frequent sweeping of a transparent nictitating membrane. Like many other birds they have near panoramic vision, able to see 340 degrees without moving the head,23 thereby viewing what is immediately in front (seeds) at the same time as they can make sense of what is approaching from behind (possible predators).24
Sparrows have been symbolically significant across cultures. In ancient Egypt they were considered important mediators between the worlds of the living and the dead (however a sparrow hieroglyph referred to negative qualities such as meanness or badness).25 Given their natural inclination to extravagant courtship dances and repeated matings over a season, these birds have for centuries been symbolically connected to lust, lechery and romance. Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, travelled in a chariot propelled by sparrows, while Cupid, the Roman god of erotic love, rode them bareback.26 Sparrow meat was considered an aphrodisiac in 16th century Europe, while up until recently Chinese physicians recommended consumption of sparrows’ eggs as a remedy for erectile difficulties.27 In contemporary Italy the term passerina (from passero, sparrow) is sexual slang similar to the use of ‘pussy’ in English. In the century before Christ’s birth, Roman poet Catullus wrote “To Lesbia’s Pet Sparrow”, a poem begging the companion sparrow of his lover Lesbia to exchange places with him so that he might be welcomed onto her lap and enjoy her affection (during this time sparrows were often kept as pets by privileged women). A thousand or so years later and Australians use the term ‘spadger’, derived from sparrow, as slang for the vagina.28 Sparrows have also represented traitors: in 1958 Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward campaign declared sparrows to be “public animals of capitalism” in China (along with flies, rats and mosquitoes); these birds were chased, harassed and worried by the devout until they died of exhaustion; their eggs were broken and chicks were killed, until the population reached near national extinction levels.29
Today’s house sparrows are also understood and treated in paradoxical and typically anthropocentric ways. They are the everyday birds of the city, often overlooked and dismissed for their ubiquity and familiarity. They are unwanted intruders in spaces humans claim as their own, and continue to be used in laboratory experiments. They are eaten as both high cuisine and street food in some cultures. And sometimes, after being orphaned while young or following an accident, sparrows find themselves living in human homes as companion birds. It is perhaps in these situations, where humans spend more time with individual birds, that distinct personalities come to the fore (although Dennis Summers-Smith, who observed sparrows in the wild for many years would be the first to endorse free living birds as individual characters too).30 While sparrows tend to be stereotyped as sociable, busy, noisy and cheeky, individual birds may be quiet and less gregarious. Whetū, a female sparrow whose name means ‘star’ in the Māori language, came as a nestling to live with Lotus several years ago; she was quieter and less humanized than Lotus, more adventurous and independent too. Similarly, writing over 60 years ago, English author Clare Kipps’ delightful accounts of her companion sparrows Clarence (who travelled with Kipps to entertain people during the Blitz) and Timmy (who refused to leave the bedroom where he lived) demonstrate clear personality differences. Clarence would sit on Kipps’ hands and “quiver with delight” when she played Chopin on the piano, while Timmy preferred to repeat his own signature tune, composed of notes that Kipps could not find on the piano, and mimic human speech.31
While Lotus has shown no interest in talking like a human, he is devoted to playing with a human. Companion sparrows love to spar in the evenings; both Kipps and I can attest to this. Lotus flies at me, squawking and flapping, sometimes becoming entangled in my hair. Kipps noted a similar ‘game’ initiated by Timmy in the evenings. She wrote: “[he] bombards my head and face from every possible angle … bumping continually into my face until, exhausted with effort and emotion, [Timmy] comes suddenly to rest at the back of my neck…”32 My own ignorance of sparrows six years ago during the second spring of Lotus’ life resulted in a moment of sheer horror, believing that my beloved young sparrow had injured himself following a particularly exuberant sparring session against my hand, preceded by a bobbing dance. What I assumed to be blood turned out to be sparrow ejaculate, a dark brown substance I have become accustomed to having deposited on me across the months of November to March each year as Lotus turns from a curious, comical and cheeky companion to a frantic, squabbling and absolutely obsessive lover preoccupied with mating my right hand. Kipps noticed this overnight change of behaviour in Timmy come springtime, but she expressed his behaviour then in a more refined way. If you have a pet male sparrow (called a cock), be prepared for an eventful spring and summer. There have been numerous occasions when I’ve worried that Lotus’ irrepressible and vigorous sexual activity will tip him over the edge and he will die from exhaustion or a stroke before his 12 expected years of life come to a more peaceful end.