Country diary: the shy side of our cheeky sparrows

It’s a customary ritual at ours to take out the previous night’s scraps to feed the sparrows. Brown and anonymous in plumage they may be, but the birds are also invariably invisible at the hedge bottom, where they maintain a perpetual, self-absorbed palaver.

The amusing process usually goes something like this: the mere sound of the door sparks a lull in proceedings and my appearance imposes instant silence, the noise of food scraping arouses a slight renewal of conversation, and the click of the closing door turns that palaver back on as if it were a switch.

Written accounts of sparrows usually emphasise their bold and impudent exploitation of ourselves. Sparrows feeding on the tables outside cafes and restaurants are a given, but people have reported them stealing food from a fork even as it travelled towards a human mouth. Yet the way in which this cheeky stuff goes hand in glove with caution is more overlooked.

Of all garden birds, house sparrows are easily the most camera-shy, and intently staring eyes appear to be the key indicator of danger to them and to many kinds of organisms. (It is presumably the power of this signifier that explains why moths and butterflies evolve eyespots on their wings as a means to ward off predators.)

The sparrow’s willingness to embrace our companionship has conferred massive dividends in terms of success. Today, it probably has the widest global distribution of any wild bird. In the past two centuries, house sparrows have spread coast to coast in North America and hopped from riverboat to riverboat through the cities of Amazonia. British house sparrows probably arrived with the Romans and may have been unknown in these islands prior to their joint invasion.

Since they first combined forces with us roughly 10 millennia ago, sparrows have known perpetual change. Yet if we could travel back in time to the Middle East, to the exact place where the birds hitched their star to our agricultural wagon, we would find one point of continuity between then and now. Those dull brown birds hopping about the homes of the first farmers would seem remarkably tame yet oddly wary at all times.