Take on Nature: Sparrow in the hall

House sparrows are active, noisy birds found around farms, in urban areas and gardens

WATCHING a male House Sparrow entering a nest box as my dog Robbie protested loudly made me realise how the bird's many endearing qualities have come to me only now.

Passer Domesticus is a humble bird which I suspect many of us take for granted: Passer, Latin for Sparrow, from which the word ‘passerine' comes and which is used by ornithologists to describe small birds, Domesticus simply for common or domestic.

Although there has been a moderate decline in breeding populations across Europe, the bird is resident and widespread across Ireland with numbers considered stable here.

The male is handsomely coloured, with dark brown, heavily streaked upper parts, grey underparts, along with a chocolate brown nape, grey crown and black bib. The female has an overall dull streaked brown colour.

House sparrows are active, noisy birds found around farms, in urban areas and gardens. They are essentially seed eaters but will eat insects especially when feeding young. They are also frequent visitors to peanut feeders and bird tables.

Living in such proximity to man, it's not surprising that their association with us stretches back through the centuries and that their presence is recorded and referenced in many works including the Bible where both Matthew and Luke wrote of Jesus reassuring his followers that not even a sparrow will fall without God's notice:

"And yet not one falls to the ground without your Father knowing" (Matthew 10:29).

Shakespeare also wrote of the sparrow when Hamlet says as he faces his tragic fate, "There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow", presumably a reference to the New Testament quote.

The ancient Greek poet Sappho from Lesbos, wrote in her early sixth century Hymn to Aphrodite of the immortal goddess's chariot being drawn by sparrows. She says: "You yoked to your shining car your wing-whirring sparrows... on they brought you over the Earth's black bosom".

In Irish, the house sparrow has the name 'Gealbhan binne' meaning the melodious sparrow. 'Gealbhan sciobóil', or Barn sparrow, is also used. Altnagelvin in Derry takes its name from the bird with 'Alt na Gealbhan' meaning 'sparrow's hill'.

The house sparrow also features in another document of religious significance which describes a moment of transition between Anglo-Saxon pagan and Christian eras.

The Venerable Bede, from north-east England describes the episode in his eighth century Ecclesiastical History of The English People. Here, he records the story of ‘the sparrow in the hall' and the pagan King Edwin of Northumberland at the hands of missionary bishop Paulinus.

Edwin was willing to hear the preaching of Paulinus and convert to Christianity but he wished to consult his advisors first so he called together his council of elders, including his pagan high priest, Coifi.

After hearing and seeing the gospel, Coifi recommended that Edwin follow the teaching of Christianity. Another of the advisors agreed, replying with; “Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on Earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter's day.

"This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While inside, he is safe from winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came.

"If this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”

I'm glad I have come to appreciate the House sparrow more fully.

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