Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Sparrow's Life

Yesterday as I stepped from the train on my way to a Bach concert, I noticed a house sparrow lying prostrate on the platform next to a rain shelter. No doubt she had flown into the shelter’s window. Hoping she was just stunned, I picked her up. Alas, she was quite dead. I stroked the soft feathers on her neck and head, noted the robustness of her pink beak and the perfect symmetry of her tail feathers, before depositing her beneath some ground ivy, where ants, flies and other members of nature’s recycling crew might perform their services undisturbed.

House sparrows are commonplace in the United States, and Washington, D.C. is no exception. They lurk in my neighborhood, chirping from eaves, taking shelter beneath cars, and holding noisy palavers inside cedar trees. Squadrons of these weaver finches arc over my town-home roof and settle in a spray on my generous neighbor’s thistle-feeders, where they nibble daintily at seeds or loiter nearby for the next available spot. They are anonymous, largely ignored by people.

And, as I learned from having recently read Providence of a Sparrow: Lessons from a Life Gone to the Birds, they are individuals, each with a unique character and personality. The author, Seattle-based electrical technician Chris Chester, discovered a newborn house sparrow while tending his garden. The naked hatchling, resembling “a testicle with a beak,” had fallen from an overhead nest. Chester and his wife successfully reared the chick, who became the pioneer of a small menagerie of rescued birds during the course of his 8 years.

Chester developed an especially close relationship with “B,” who would perch on Chester’s left shoulder and sleep in the crook of his neck. One of his favorite games was Hit the Cap. Chester would place a bottle-lid over the opening in his hand, which enclosed B. B would suddenly lunge through the opening, knocking the cap into the air with his stout bill. Occasionally, B would achieve a double play, hitting the cap a second time as it descended from its first flight. He also loved to play fetch, unless he wasn’t in the mood. Chester showed a full range of emotions, from frisky to irritable. He soon grew tired of fetching the same colored cap and Chester had to seek out unusual bottled products to sustain B’s interest.

Sooner or later we must come to the uplifting—if sobering—realization that all house sparrows are unique individuals. And all warthogs, meadow voles, starlings, iguanas and goldfishes. Each has a biography. Their seeming uniformity is only a function of our unfamiliarity. The more time we spend in their midst, the more their visages resolve into distinct personalities.

Later, as I sat in the concert hall immersed in the dolorous strains of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, my thoughts returned to the little grey/brown bird. How old was she and what sort of personality did she have? Who were her friends? How felt her first flight? What adventures did she have, what flashes of fear and moments of mirth?

I hope she had a good life.


At September 6, 2008 at 7:00 AM , Blogger Caroline said...

I just now found your blog and I'm enjoying your writing very much (and also found pleasure in your book a while ago). We too have a tenement of sparrows in our ivy - the endless bickering which alternates with inexplicable periods of silence simply fascinate me. I've often reflected on the fact few people would deny their beloved pets have full and distinct personalities, but cannot extend this trait to other species. Thanks for all you do for animals.

At May 2, 2009 at 2:49 AM , Blogger abeesknees said...

The school I was teaching at sprayed the eaves for bird lice and a day later tiny sparrow hatchlings were raining down on the footpaths-still alive. Being the "animal person" at the school the children and staff were bringing me these helpless little creatures. So, my classroom art cupboard became a sparrow nursery- each in it's own little styrafoam burger takeaway box, nested and warm getting pre chewed seed from me or one of my year 4 students several times a day (and night when I took them all home). To cut a long story short, not all lived, but quite a few (16) lived and went home with student foster parents and lived out their little lives in averies.
And yes, they all had different personalities and attitudes- but all were very sweet.
I was the butt of a million jokes and open hatred from a few narrow minded people, who even resorted to stepping on one of the fallen birds before I could get to it. He was never trusted by any of the kids again after that.
It was a rewarding experience for all and the students took a big lesson from their nurturing duties.
I have since gone on to raise or look after countless strays, orphans and wounded wildlife-and have loved every one of them.

At August 20, 2014 at 9:16 AM , Blogger Stevan Harnad said...

Overcoming the Other-Minds Problem

Very touching story, Jonathan. Yes, all sentient (feeling) creatures count; they all matter; and the fact that we don't all feel this as acutely as we do with our own selves and our family and close friends is the "other minds problem": there is no way for us to feel what another being feels, nor even whether another being feels at all. And that makes us take an almost psychopathic attitude toward its existence, feelings, needs and wants. Psychopaths simply don't care about the feelings, needs and wants of others; they perceive others as just beings means -- instruments -- for fulfilling the psychopath's own wants.

Let us hope that most human beings are not psychopaths, but merely unaware (or in denial) about the feelings, needs and wants of other sentient beings, because of the other-minds problem. The other-minds problem has eventually been overcome in the case of homicide, genocide, slavery, torture, racism and the subjugation of women.

It is time to dispel our unawareness of the feelings, needs and wants of all sentient creatures, great and small -- because in practice "our" other-minds problem is their tragedy.


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