Sparrow Diaries


I have put food (millet seeds, the sparrow’s favourite food according to the internet) for birds to eat on my window sill nearly every day for almost two years.

The sparrows appear in small groups, rarely alone, and tend to attract. Some tend to cheep or squack on arrival, calling others to the food cache, or they may not want to let others know, so their vocalization is more of a pathological and counterproductive “shhh!”

Oh the joy, the squabbling and skittishness.  

 

A vision: they present themselves in the tree, displaying their Nature unthought, a skittering ruffle of slight feather-bags among the branches, arranged as ever, just so. For now. And now. 

 

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A particular, witchy perception surrounds the sparrow. They fear danger, it ripples throughout their bodies. They fly based on fear-whims, but remain despite my familiar bulk on the other side of the glass. A creak in the chair will send them to the tree. Wooden chair. 

 

Their small black eyes constantly scan in all directions, and they jerk their necks slightly to detect motion. We cannot know, nor should we really speculate, what they sense.

 

But for all this unknown fear and twitch, the whimsy of the black-boxed sparrow’s spirit, is there expressive joy in their flight, their joy at seeing me (and their meal)? And who can help but see in their wing dance a certain art?

 

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They are noticeably excited by the sun, certainly in the morning when they sing “for no reason,” but also on those days when sunlight momentarily breaks through and casts their flight-world in warmth. They eat with gusto, display a little more expressively, their song is more varied. It is said there’s a blurry, cacophanous ring of dawn-dusk birdsong that encircles the globe.

 

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Today, they are nervous and careful, always on the lookout for danger, even during a feast. But more than their own senses, they rely on the group. Nine sparrows out of ten will fly just because the flock does. The stupid/smart one stays and continues munching undisturbed, or gets eating by a falcon. It is as though their sensory range is expanded, each bird has several eyes connected to its own, a cluster of sparrows is all black eyes—some bright beads, others occluded orbs—a jittery, collective gaze shooting out multidirectionally.

 

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A moment of drama as the starlings arrive, needle-beaked, their tender bird guts churning in their bird paunch, a beak scrapes against the pebbled concrete ledge.

These are the most spectral and mysterious birds of the vulgar avian trinity (sparrow-starling-pigeon). They are mischievious, even malicious perhaps. Colonial birds. But I love them for their long narrow beaks, tufted beards, and above all, their wildly various and complex voices, which they seem barely able to control. Unlike the focused communication of the crow and the gentle cooing of the pigeon, the sqawks, chirrups, tweedles, undulations, clacks, squeaks, etc. of the starling seem like the ploysemous ravings of an absolute lunatic. A lunatic whose brain is dispersed throughout a tree in irredescent purple black feather sacks.

 

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A sparrow flies into my room. I ask it why? Head tilts in perplexion, slightest draft whiffles through downy sparrow neck, a frail tiny scritch of birdclaw on oakdesk. I mean why are you here, here on Earth? Cheep. Twweet. The response sends chills down my spinal column, into my tailbone (and non-existent) tail, and back up into the brain ··first down then up—into the earth, up to the heavens·· My brain just shrugs, but my tail’s going mad. 

 

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How can we even know what a sparrow is trying to say?

 

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They have a close but fraught relationship with the local pigeons, and to a lesser extent the local starlings, both of whom keenly watch the sparrows to know when it’s feeding time. In this way, the larger birds employ the smaller ones as sense organs, machinic extensions of the avian body.

 

The receive an almost guaranteed source of food, fairly regularly. And they are happy, they have more free time for singing and preening. They are more artistic, their songs are more expressive, we hope.

 

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For one instant, I saw the brilliant flash of a sparrow’s eye as it and I and the sun triangulated in a most improbable way—and the murky bright unknowable ocular surge flashed into my body. The sparrow jerked his head, the flash was gone. My tail flickered.

 

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The best is the way they leap of the ledge, fearless, and the way they with a flutter gracefully appear from below. Masters of whim, lords of the hither and of the thither. They are the patrons of rhythm and random. Stewards of herk and jerk. Small bundles of graceful fear. A scattering, a dispersal. A thought. A feather.

 

A flash, suddenly, an x-ray image of the sparrow in flight. Back-lit bones through the sun-blasted featherbody. Death in flight. A beak, two claws, so many bones. 

 

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Like thoughts they emerge and flutter, peck at the millet seeds for sustenance and are scattered and scared off. 

 

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In response to those who disdain the feeding of sparrows (from a general unthinking perspective or a specific high-ornithological one), I respond not with words, but by feeding millet to a sparrow. A connection between me and this bird here. A momentary encounter across species, a gift of sorts. The only way to counteract thought, it seems, is through the body. Through a song. Psh psh psh psh

 

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I listen through the wall with my stethoscope: the hard arrhythmic tapping of calciated beak growth on the mashed and reformed concrete mineral sill: tap tap taptaptap scrtichtaptaptapp tap taptap

 

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The sparrow caught in a photographic blur, golden morning light suffusing the feathered vectors of its body, a lump of millet in its crop—no boundaries.

 

This warped bird does not exist, did not exist, an avian spectre true only to itself for one phantasmagoric instant.

 

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Today the birds cry rhythmically at each, slightly out of phase. My ears are two in number, one for each bird. They share the ragged, harried squawks that scatter out of the beaks, tripping off the lips of those stippled triangular excrescences, sound waves spinning, beset by chaos, and the pauses that follow. 

 

And enabling this relationship, the heavy space all around, the background that makes all this possible: scrabbled land, a dead train car, my scant musicology, the birds’ awareness of each other, each bird’s embodied attunement to the “other bird.”

Me, two birds, two ears, and some heavy space: things are happening of which I am only partly aware.

 

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There is a ring of song around the world where the birds sing. At dusk and dawn, as the liminal cusp moves over the earth, or more accurately as the earth spins in the sun’s glow, the birds start up and birdsong moves with the light—emerging and dying—encircling the globe once a day, all day.

 

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What’s one little sharp, spiked cheep from the fur-tufted throat of the sparrow—on this or any other morning—except nothing and everything, or something in between, a call of gratitude for the millet i brought her, a meek i am, a joyous expression of life itself, a how are you, a get lost, an i love you. And a nothing at all… A minute, improbably artistic expression of the biosphere… 

 

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A grey-hooded sparrow told me the secret to ruins:

 

Each stone in the castle, for example,

was once formed by human hands, now

scattered in bone dust nourished 

through biological lineages that only the 

so-called

mute lifeforms can understand, the

trees that nourished me.

 

Look again, she said,

at that crumbling arch

and the only thing

you will see

is me eating

you,

with love,

peeling the flesh from your bones.