A lone sparrow

Last weekend was the Garden Bird Count: you sit by a window for half an hour and note down all the birds you see in the garden. The Bird Protection Society supplies a list of the most common garden birds, with hints for identifying them. Not having a garden any more I don’t take part in it, but I miss it, it was one of the year’s more peaceful rituals. The first time I did it was in 2010, the last January of Rudy’s life. He lay on the sofa, not well but still able to tease me as I sat there with binoculars and my list. My results were the same as almost everybody else’s; they come out in the paper the next day: great tit, robin, collared dove, blackbird, magpie. It was not exactly Adlestrop: ‘And for that minute a blackbird sang/ Close by, and round him, mistier,/ Farther and farther, all the birds/ Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.’

Rudy wasn’t good on birds, he knew blackbirds but called all the others wrens, a most effective tease as one always felt compelled to correct him. But he did, it turned out, know the difference between the wren and the others. Years ago, when we were staying in Brooklyn, we saw a number of sparrows, foraging on the street, and he became very excited: ‘Look, sparrows!’ he cried. The friend we were with, who had been living in America for years and saw them every day, still talks about it. But it is true, I realised, we no longer see those flocks of sparrows in our cities, our streets are too clean, we don’t shake the crumbs from our tablecloths out of the window. But you still see them in America, where they have strange, larger versions of our birds. Only the sparrows are the same, and that is because they were imported from England, the legend goes, by someone who thought America should have all the birds in Shakespeare.

            We had an elegant bird table in the garden, constructed by Rudy; it was modelled on a Greek temple, with columns and a portico. The first year I stared at it through my binoculars there was not a single sparrow, but then I started putting out food all year long and eventually got up to twelve at a time, thereby creating, I hope, havoc in the Bird Count statistics. The sparrows would appear in the garden out of nowhere, like a group of noisy schoolchildren, eat huge quantities of seeds, scattering them in all directions (to be hoovered up by the pigeons later), and vanish again; I never saw them on the street. I thought of them as Rudy’s sparrows, although he never saw them. It is the birds that I miss the most, in the new house without a garden.

            There are Shakespearean sparrows, some of them in America, and biblical ones, but the most moving one of all is the Venerable Bede’s comparison of man’s life with ‘the swift flight of a lone sparrow through the banqueting hall where you sit in the winter months… This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another.’

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