Magazine | January 23, 2017, Issue

Bird’s-Eye View

Pigeons in Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan. (Reuters photo: Mike Segar)

Pigeons are the iconic city bird but sparrows come close behind. Like pigeons they live not in the curated patches of parks but on the sidewalks and streets. They are streetwalkers, pedestrians, non-stop maintenance men (their union contract specifies no breaks, unless the fact that they are always foraging makes their day one long break).

I am no birder. As far as I know, there are English, and all the others. Why they are so suited to an urban existence I cannot say. Size must help; they were early converts to the tiny-house movement. If you want to see their houses, follow their chirping. That is how I discovered, years ago, that they had colonized the cross-pieces of street lights. Once I started looking up I saw that every tubular hollow end had an insistent denizen. They also like the metal housings of retractable awnings; they live over the door of my favorite restaurant, just below the neon sign, watching the aspiring models come and go.

Not being picky eaters must also help. The noble ivory-billed woodpecker, called the Lord God bird because that is what you exclaimed when you saw him, is no more because he ate larvae in the trunks of dead tupelo trees. Log the bayous, no more ivory-bills. Sparrows say, To hell with that, I’ll finish your pretzel if you don’t want it. No taste and no shame means lots of sparrows.

They are unafraid, nearly unmindful of humans. We mean no harm; we are not Frenchmen, dreaming of ortolans. But the sparrows don’t know that, and still they are unfazed by us. Imagine if your next meal, your breakfast cereal or a nice plate of spaghetti, were served on the sidewalk — except the sidewalk is now 50 feet wide, and beings the size of three- or four-story buildings are thundering over the table. Some of them are on skateboards as long as sailboats, or bicycles as big as cement mixers. And yet for you it’s just another day, another crumb. Of course — and here the comparison breaks down — you can fly, which means a few in-sweeps take you from beneath the monsters’ feet, past their bald spots and Knicks caps, to the safety of a walk/don’t walk sign, or of your cross-piece.

Sparrows seem mainly to be bothered by themselves. They wrangle at sidewalk cafés over flâneurs’ leavings (occasionally a pigeon will muscle in). At other times, probably related to mating, they engage in furious squabbles beneath parked cars or in the stunted plantings in front of townhouses. So we of little faith imagine World War I, or is it II, as overheard by God.

I never see them dead. Once in a while you see the splayed remains of a pigeon that has been crushed by a car — never a sparrow corpse. Red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons live in the city, but they can’t eat all the aged. Can rats (common) or raccoons (not in my neighborhood) venture up to their nests? Probably their bones and feathers get swept or hosed away, too small to be remarked.

Birds in the country often hide from us, nesting and singing in trees, swooping for insects at dusk when they leave only dark shapes against the waning sky. In the bare trees of winter those that don’t go south gather in visible flocks. These sometimes include a sparrow, but they seem like odd birds out, for their niche is filled by juncos.

When I was young they were called slate-colored juncos. Now, in a migration to dullness, they are called dark-eyed juncos. (Just so the Baltimore oriole, which recalled a city and a lord, is now the eastern oriole, which evokes a time zone.) “Slate-colored” describes their heads, necks, backs, and wings exactly; their undersides are as white as the snow they decorate. Their small flock-mates — chickadees, titmice, goldfinches — fly in and out of feeders, scattering a seed for every seed they retrieve. Juncos patiently work the deck and the ground, sorting through the cast-offs. They do fly, in straight low bursts, although their most common motion is the hop, both legs springing simultaneously. On mornings after a flurry, late-rising me sees the snow flecked with their prints: a Grauman’s Chinese Theatre of birds. They like the cover of juniper bushes. Although I have never seen them actually fighting, they scurry around down there. At night, when I step outside to look at Orion, I hear them fleeing in alarm.

Like sparrows, they seem to get only themselves in trouble. A couple of my doors are long glass panes — why live in the country if you don’t want to look at it? But birds will misjudge them, confused perhaps by reflections. I have found a few tufts, left as calling cards, and two casualties. One — a titmouse, not a junco — had injured himself fatally. The other, a chickadee, looked as if he had, but I propped him up on his stomach; 15 minutes later, I found him immobile but breathing; 15 minutes after that, he was gone.

One winter of unusually heavy snow, the junipers were covered with white decking, leaving only a few portholes for ingress and egress. The juncos stayed inside, as in an igloo. At last the whole thing collapsed, causing I trust only disaster not injury.

Sparrows, and their country soulmates, are charming, lively, numerous, and transient. If they are not expendable, they are regularly expended. Who could name them, much less care for them? Be quiet, greenies; you care about the great pulsing system of Gaia, not its cogs. We are told that a sparrow is worth only one-eighth of a penny (“Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?”). Elsewhere, the price sinks to one-tenth of a penny (“Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings?”). And yet, the bird pricer insists, God watches every one (“One of them shall not fall upon the ground without your Father”). But what man could believe that?

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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