I believe in sparrows
I left England to live in America when I was seventeen and, like most uprooted people, have never managed to feel completely at home anywhere since.
I romanticize my homeland. I watch English films and murder mysteries so I can drink in images of vivid green grass against silver-gray skies, bustling London streets, cozy villages. Though I’m deeply rooted in my Colorado home, sometimes I can’t shake off the feeling that I’m not really here. I’m really in grubby, gregarious Willesden Green, married to an Englishman and the mother of children who call me “mummy” and ask for biscuits with their tea.
And, again like other expats, I search out corners of my adopted country that feel like home. One of these is a coffee shop fronting a shopping strip with a heated patio where you can watch the sparrows squabbling around table legs, alert for any dropped crumb of croissant or biscotti. Sometimes one of the bolder birds lands on my table, cocks his head and fixes his bright eyes on my face.
Sparrows aren’t majestic like America’s soaring eagles. They’re neither rare nor exotic. And few people would call the pattern of their black-and-brown feathers beautiful. They’re small, cheeky and quick-witted, and they swarmed all over London when I was growing up, darting in and out of crevices, extracting food from lawns in that bouncy hop-scratch way of theirs, even picking seeds from dung left by a policeman’s horse. To people of my generation, sparrows were London.
It isn’t the big things I miss about England. It’s bangers and mash, silly jokes that only English people understand, the smell of Dettol in a corridor. A lot of what I associate with England is gone: Trafalgar Square’s pigeons, double-decker buses, bobbies’ helmets, red squirrels, the paving stones we used for hopscotch.
And sparrows. No one knows why—perhaps pollution, perhaps predatory magpies—but the London sparrow is in rapid decline.
At the coffee shop a couple of months ago, I noticed one of the sparrows was holding his head tilted too far to the side. His feathers were draggled. He still hopped along the patio, searching for food, but his movements seemed muzzy. And suddenly I was filled with anxiety. Now that I thought about it, there seemed to be fewer sparrows around town in general. Had whatever was plaguing them in Europe reached America? Were we to lose our sparrows too?
I called the Wild Bird Store, and was assured that it’s natural to see fewer sparrows in fall. They’ve mated, raised their young, and moved on. And while I might have seen a sick bird, the staffer had heard nothing about any generalized plague.
It’s winter now, and the sparrows have arrived in my garden, attracted by the feeder that helps keep their fragile, energetic bodies warm. There’s a wonderful book on terms of venery by James Lipton called, “An Exaltation of Larks.” Through my window, I see a ubiquity of sparrows, a seethe of sparrows, a hop’n’scratch of sparrows, sparrows as plentiful as they were in my London childhood. And if they belong here, it seems to me, then surely, finally, so do I.
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