16 February 2014

The humble sparrow

Probably the most well-known bird in New Zealand and, indeed, in the entire world is the humble house sparrow, Passer domesticus domesticus. According to my trusty copy of Birds of New Zealand, the sparrow ‘benefits from man-made agriculture and building design without affecting humans in any substantial way’ – the perfect combination – and, although it ’has undergone huge declines in Europe’, it’s still doing well here in New Zealand.

A male house sparrow, New Zealand
The sparrow is not a native New Zealander – it was introduced here several times between 1866 and 1871, and has clearly made itself at home. There are 26 species of house sparrow in the world, and they are native to Europe, Asia and north-west Africa, though there are also American sparrows (a separate family, the Emberizidae) and birds with similar names, like the Java sparrow (also a different family, the Estrildidae). Sparrows were certainly familiar birds during the time I lived in Peru and in Cambodia and, being such familiar birds in so many countries, they have become the subject of many sayings and proverbs. I will share some I’ve found, along with some of my photos of one of my favourite little birds.

Sparrows bathing, New Zealand

‘I am only a sparrow amongst a great flock of sparrows.’ Evita Peron

Rufous-collared sparrow, Peru

‘The sparrow that is twittering on the edge of my balcony is calling up to me this moment a world of memories that reach over half my lifetime, and a world of hope that stretches farther than any flight of sparrows. Donald G. Mitchell

Male sparrow, Cambodia
‘I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.’ Henry David Thoreau

Cute sparrow fledglings, New Zealand
The humble sparrow has even made its way into the work of that famous bard William Shakespeare. For example, he uses the sparrow to illustrate Hamlet’s belief that there is rhyme and reason to even the slightest events of the universe: ‘There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow’ (Hamlet, act five, scene two). And, in King Lear (act one, scene four), Shakespeare has the Fool utter this piece of wisdom: ‘For, you know, nuncle, the hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long that it had it head bit off by it young’.

Rufous-collared sparrow, Peru
When the sparrow sings its final refrain, the hush is felt nowhere more deeply than in the heart of man.' Don Williams Jnr.

Female house sparrow, New Zealand
And then there are the proverbs …
‘A sparrow in hand is worth a pheasant that flieth by’, and ‘A sparrow in hand is worth more than a vulture flying’, and ‘A sparrow in the hand is better than a pigeon on the wing’, all French proverbs. And the variations on these from other European countries: the German and Polish versions are the same: ‘A sparrow in the hand is better than a pigeon on the roof’; the Spanish: ‘A sparrow in the hand is better than a bustard on the wing’; the Russian: ‘A sparrow in the hand is better than a cock on the roof’, and the Portuguese: ‘Better a sparrow in the hand than two flying’.

Sparrow, Cambodian
Then there are several countries’ versions of proverbs with two sparrows. Firstly, the French: ‘Two sparrows on the same ear of corn are not long friends’; the Spanish: ‘Two sparrows on one ear of corn never agree’; and very similar to the Spanish is the Romanian: ‘Two sparrows on one ear of corn make an ill agreement’.

Another Peruvian rufous-collared sparrow
And I’ll leave you with a few of the 50-odd other proverbs I discovered that all feature our little feathered friend …
Russian: ‘A spoken word is not a sparrow. Once it flies out, you can't catch it.’
Danish: ‘A sparrow suffers as much when it breaks its leg as does a Flanders horse.’
Bantu: ‘Only heaven can see the back of a sparrow.’
Malawian: ‘An upstart is a sparrow eager to marry a hornbill.’
Turkish: ‘Who fears the sparrows must not sow millet.’
Japanese: ‘The sparrow flying behind the hawk thinks the hawk is fleeing.’
Burmese: ‘Sparrows who mimic peacocks are likely to break a thigh.’
Scottish: ‘Auld sparrows are ill to tame.’

A curious young female sparrow, New Zealand