Monday, 10 September 2012


The sparrows have gone. From the garden, and from the whole road - just like that. The cheery company of House Sparrows, whose clamour was such a familiar sound of the morning, and who swept in on my garden in frequent raiding parties, jostling for places on the feeders and emptying them in no time - suddenly they're gone.
  The first sign was that the feeders were staying full much longer. Maybe the sparrows have just changed their routines, I thought, found better feeders down the road. But then I realised I wasn't hearing them or seeing them in the garden, and that there was no sign or sound of them anywhere on the road. Only a few weeks ago they were thriving as only sparrows thrive, a loud and lively feature of the street.
  What can have happened? I have no idea, but it must have been something fairly catastrophic to cause such a sudden disappearance, especially as there was not even any sign of decline. Perhaps they'll be back. I do hope so. It's too quiet without them, and a lot duller.
  Anthony Hecht's poem House Sparrows, about the sparrows of Long Island, beautifully captures the essence of these birds and their powerful appeal (and, until very recently, strong connection) to us humans:

'Not of the wealthy, Coral Gables class
Of travellers, nor that rarified tax bracket,
These birds weathered the brutal, wind-chill facts
Under our eaves, nesting in withered grass,
Wormless but hopeful, and now their voice enacts
Forsythian spring with primavernal racket.

Their colour is the elderly, moleskin grey
Of doggedness, of mist, magnolia bark.
Salt of the earth, they are; the common clay;
Meek emigres come over on the Ark
In steerage from the Old Country of the Drowned
To settle down along Long Island Sound.

Flatbush, Weehawken, our brownstone tenements,
Wherever the local idiom is Cheep.
Savers of string, meticulous and mild,
They are given to nervous flight, the troubled sleep
Of those who remember terrible events,
The wide-eyed, anxious haste of the exiled.

Like all the poor, their safety lies in numbers
And hardihood and anonymity
In a world of dripping browns and umbers.
They have inherited the lower sky,
Their Lake of Constants, their blue modality
That they are borne upon and battered by.

 Those little shin-bones, hollow at the core,
Emaciate finger-joints, those fleshless wrists,
Wrapped in a wrinkled, loose, rice-paper skin,
As though the harvests of Earth had never been,
Where have we seen such frailty before?
In pictures of Biafra and Auschwitz.

Yet here they are, these chipper stratoliners,
Unsullen, unresentful, full of the grace
Of cheerfulness, who seem to greet all comers
With the wild confidence of Forty-Niners,
And, to the lively honour of their race,
Rude canticles of "Summers", "Summers", "Summers".

That startling image in the penultimate stanza catches something of the alien quality of birds. Much though we come to love them, it is for their plumage, their songs, their expressions and habits - not for what shows of them in their legs and feet, reminders that they are, at the level of anatomy, a kind of pared-down pocket dinosaur.


  1. perhaps they've moved to my house nige? Still plenty here in Warwick

    sad poem, although i found the auschwitz bit rather de trop, as sparrows are esentially cheerful little souls

  2. Yes I'm not sure about that line really - but he does bring it back to a great ending.

  3. I would be more inclined to paint them as irish immigrants wrapped in blankets, poor but raucous and cheerful despite it all

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