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March 29, 2018

The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow, by Jan Thornhill

My husband got a new camera, and has been snapping photos all over town, including one shot of a ubiquity of sparrows in a tree, hopping from branch to branch and singing their song. He’d taken the photo after we all encountered the sparrows on our way to the library, pausing to watch them sparrowing. The sparrows were fascinating, and later as we looked at the photo we started talking about sparrows, how they were an invasive species, and I’d read once that that campaigns had used their domesticity (‘house’ sparrow) to have them further reviled—so it’s a gender issue, naturally. And then I realized that here was the segue I’d been waiting for.

“We have a book about sparrows, you know,” I said. A book that is absolutely gorgeous, Jan Thornhill’s The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow, which follows up on her award-winning The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk. I’d been intrigued by the sparrow book, but wasn’t sure what to do with it—it’s too long for bedtime reading, but looks like a picture book, so my biology-obsessed reader might not be inclined to pick it up on her own. So this was a perfect opportunity, and I started reading it out loud over dinner, and all of us were absolutely riveted.

Honestly, I’m not going to tell you everything, because I don’t want to deprive you of the experience we had again and again in this book, of beginning a new paragraph only to have our minds blown. We learned how sparrow species date back to prehistoric times and how populations of sparrows grew and changed their habits when humans discovered agriculture and started harvested the sparrow’s favourite food, which was grain. And now humans and sparrows have been living side-by-side ever since.

Sparrow populations spread as human populations did, house sparrows displaying their signature adaptability. But, Thornhill writes, “We humans have never been very good at sharing the food we grow with other animals—unless those animals are pets or livestock. The ones that eat our crops, we consider pests…and we always have.”

The remains of sparrows have been found in the stomachs of mummified falcons from ancient Egypt, and ancient Egyptians used a hieroglyph of a house sparrow to describe something as bad or evil. House sparrows would stow away on ships carrying the Roman legion. They grew so numerous that “sparrow catcher” became a legitimate occupation and sparrow bounties were demanded—although their meat was spare. “In fact, one old recipe for a simple sparrow pie calls for the meat from at least five dozen birds!”

But the house sparrow is not just detested. Thornhill underlining our own experience with the following paragraph: “[The house sparrow] can be fun to watch, particularly since it will go about its business—eating, preening, dust bathing, feeding its young—much closer to humans than other wild birds.” (We have spent hours over the years stopped at a house around the corner with a feeder in front watching the sparrows do what sparrows do. It never ever gets old…)

Sparrows were brought to North America and soon spread across the country, even hitching rides on boxcars with livestock and sharing their dinner. There were sparrow crackdowns even here eventually, though sparrow populations would soonafter decline for a different reason relating to the advent of automobiles, which was our favourite fact of the book (and such a neat lesson in unexpected consequences…). In 1958, Chairman Mao declared war on the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, which he saw as depriving food from Chinese people…and the decimated sparrow population that resulted would lead to a plague of insects, crop devastation, and a famine in which thirty million people starved to death.

The history of the house sparrow would turn out to be the history of everything, but the future of the house sparrow is also important. In some regions, sparrow populations having been declining for reasons scientists don’t understand, and while Thornhill is not an alarmist, she speculates that this reason might be important, and that the status of any species so connected with our own probably matters a lot. Because everything is actually connected, which is the very point of this wonderful, fascinating book.

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