Ode to the endangered . . . house sparrow(?)

house_sparrow.jpgThe BBC reports that a new list of British species in need of protection includes . . . house sparrows.

The news comes from the UK’s new Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP), the result of more than two years of research by more than 500 wildlife experts and a large number of volunteers.

“The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said that as well as the house sparrow, the starling was another familiar garden bird to feature on the BAP list of 59 bird species.

‘The fact that the bird list now includes more than a fifth of all the UK’s regularly occurring birds is a cause for alarm, ‘ said Mark Avery, the RSPB’s conservation director.”

Huh?!  House sparrows and starlings?  What’s next — pigeons? Hard to believe, especially if you have been in any major city in the world lately, and seen the seemingly vigorous populations of these archetypal invasive species, in grizzled downtown plumage, picking at stale french fries and other flotsam among the urban detritus.

Perhaps for exactly that reason, this is sobering news.  It reminds me of the status of the blue crab here in the Chesapeake Bay region.  The blue crab is the closest thing the non-primate branches of the animal kingdom have come to producing the sort of freaks found in the World Wrestling Federation — mean, nasty, pumped up, and constitutionally belligerent.  Blue crabs, somewhat like house sparrows and starlings, can make do in a wide range of environmental conditions, can eat almost literally anything, and have astonishing reproductive output.  You’d think it would be impossible to kill them.  Yet in the face of relentless fishing pressure even these consummate survivors have declined to the point where many experts are worried about their long-term prospects.  Which doesn’t bode well for the more delicate wild creatures among us.

Not many people in my neck o’ the woods would think of these scrappy urban birds as wildlife.  Yet house sparrows (aka English sparrows) and starlings are ancient and reassuringly familiar citizens of town life in the UK.  One wonders what people could have done, after all these centuries, to create an environment that is inhospitable even to them.  Although admittedly plain, the humble house sparrow has its charms — like most any organism that one takes the time to know.  And noone captured it better than the great William Carlos Williams, whose tribute I feel compelled to quote (alas, in abridged form) here:

At that,

his small size,

keen eyes,

servicable beak

and general truculence

assure his survival —

to say nothing

of his innumerable


Even the Japanese

know him

and have painted him


with profound insight

into his minor


. . .

Practical to the end

it is the poem

of his existence

that triumphed


a wisp of feathers

flattened to the pavement

wings spread symetrically

as if in flight,

the head gone,

the black escutcheon of the breast


the effigy of  sparrow

a dried wafer only,

left to say

and it says it

without offense,


This was I,

a sparrow.

I did my best;


About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
This entry was posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, et cetera, Poetry, Sustainability and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ode to the endangered . . . house sparrow(?)

  1. Hey, that’s a cool poem. I’ll have to check out this WCW guy.

  2. David says:

    nice poem, kind of childish so

  3. Rebecca says:

    A pair of these sparrows nest on my patio each spring. He is very beautiful. His color is a vibrant cinnamon chocolate with the gray top. He is so pretty, and I had noticed he was different from the others around. I hadn’t seen another like him and was curious to know more about what kind of sparrow he was.
    His beak is like a strong black full round short cone and his coloring is very profound. The brown color goes from his beak, around the sides of his head to his back like a mask over his eyes. And the gray cap is nicely tapered to the back of the head. The black beak is very dark, meeting with the brown at the eyes, and black color also descending down the middle underneath like a short narrow stripe to a small speckled black patch on the chest that slightly fans out like a mans European dress scarf with a white collar. What a pretty little bird.
    The female is a bit different,… not with the same color distinctions, but more dapple in color and her beak is different too.
    But each year they arrive here to nest.
    I didn’t remember ever seeing one with his distinctive coloring and glad to see him each year.
    Sorry to hear that he will be added to an endangered list.
    I’d been looking for something on this bird and you have a perfect picture. I knew it was the bird when I saw this picture. Thank You.