Garden notes: Steel Drums and the Flight of Sparrows

The first thing I noticed in the garden this morning was that the bird feeder was full of rainwater –did it really rain that much last night? (Apparently so.)

I made the feeder out of a large old saucepan lid which is upturned and sits atop a fourfoot steel rod stuck in the ground. The two drainholes that I had drilled in it had clogged up with seed. I cleared that out (using a sharpened chopstick) and filled it up with new seed.
One mourning dove watched the ritual putting out of the seed from its tree; sparrows in the hedge came alive, hopped about, rubbed their beaks on hedge branches –ready to eat.

As the birds got ready to feed, I got my Yamaha and played a little,
mostly the Beatles song, “Blackbird singing in the dead of night” –a song with a certain magic to it. Hard to explain –I think it may be that the lyrics are…a little mysterious. Anyway, I do like its freshness (its purity?).
And of course because it has “bird” in the title, it was a natural for my garden repertoire. Indulge me, the idea…appeals to me.

So I sit playing “Blackbird”. I try a few Yamaha “voices”. Then I remember a voice that I had discovered early on, and had remarked to myself on its verisimilitude, but hadn’t used much –it’s #419, “The Steel Drum”. So I switched to Steel Drums now, and continued with “Blackbird”.

Whereupon, a cloud of sparrows flew immediately from the hedge to perch on the trellis. A few fed, but most of them just sat there, taking it all in. Who knew that sparrows liked steel drums.

Well, to adopt the language of scientific enquiry: was it the new, unaccustomed, sound that made them curious? Or was it just that they “liked” the sound.
I’ve been thinking about using the term “liked” in connection with birds, or any animals. How do we know what birds “like”? Clearly birds, and indeed all or many life forms “like”. They “like” to eat; they “prefer” to eat seed than, say, leaves. They “like” to hang out with each other, presumably just as we enjoy company.

Applying “like” to sparrows and music: I have been thinking again of the Daniel Levittin book that I wrote about recently, “This is Your Brain on Music” and those dopamine-rewards that our brains dole out to us when we listen to music that we enjoy. Might it not be the most reasonable assumption –compared to any others I can think of– that birds experience music, or sound, in a somewhat similar way?
(In any event, I will continue to put quote marks around “like” –if only to remind myself that I don’t really know.)

Apparently mourning doves also like steel drums because –suddenly– there are eight doves, where there had been just one. And two of them have landed closer than usual to me –on the old tomato stakes still standing from last year.
Who can explain it? Perhaps both sparrows and doves have wintered in the Caribbean?

Now –concerning the flight of sparrows:

Birds fly. Sparrows fly. The flight of sparrows is –you might think, as I myself did– unremarkable. Adequate. Gets them from A to B and back again. But since I have been observing them for some time now, a few things have begun to stand out.

One has to do with precision: a sparrow can fly quite smoothly through the three-inch-square opening of a trellis. Perhaps “glide through” is more accurate, since they do have to hold their wings in as they actually go through the opening in the slats.

The second unusual aspect of sparrow flight is the “community” aspect of it. I describe above how the “cloud” of sparrows arrived at the “steel drum” cue. Equally remarkable is the mass instant-flight that happens when something disturbs or frightens them, as often happens when they are feeding: suddenly, in a whirr and a blur, they are gone and back in their hedge.

The third observation I have made about the flight of sparrows is the most extraordinary.
It happens with two, and sometimes three, sparrows, and it seems to be a play action, or perhaps a mating prelude. The birds fly very close to each other; they fly very very much faster than usual; and their flight seems very much more fluid, almost as if one bird is a mere shadow of the other, joined to it.
And most of all, the direction of the flight is most unusual –typically the duo or trio will glide very fast, rising smoothly to clear the forsythia bush, swoop down low across the garden, avoiding fluidly and effortlessly any obstacles, and just as quickly –without any loss of pace– swoop up forty or fifty feet to land on the top of the tree of heaven.
There they will perch, at some slight distance from each other, for a few moments, and take off again.

It does feel like play.
It does seem like a chase.
And it is the remarkable fluid grace and speed which is its main quality, and which quite wonderful and delightful to see.

Like a most graceful pas de deux

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5 Responses to “Garden notes: Steel Drums and the Flight of Sparrows”

  1. Kevin T. McEneaney

    Back in the mid seventies Mao had a mass program to elminate sparrows from China because they ate so much seed in spring and people were starving. If you killed a sparrow, you brought the dead bird to the local police station and you got some money, say a penny or whatever. Children throwing rocks were very effective and sparrows were elimated from the country. (I don’t know if anything has changed since.) Sparrows have often been the favorite of poets.

  2. Beth

    What a terribly sad story that Kevin shares… Though the subject is distinct, it reminds one of this past week’s troubling news story in the news about a PGA golfer who teed off, aimed at a red-shouldered hawk on the golf course, and killed him. (Not an accident, according to witnesses. The golfer was taping a demo, and was annoyed at the hawk, whose calls interrupted several takes. So he took several shots aimed directly at the bird, until he hit it and killed it. Now he could be in serious trouble for killing a migratory bird.)

    I’d never heard of Mao’s campaign against sparrows. Tho it’s disturbing, thank you for sharing this, Kevin. A dear friend grew up in Beijing, and often returns to visit family and to do documentary filming. I’ll ask her if the sparrows have returned to China.

    Malachi’s observation is interesting about the sparrows’ ability to fold their wings and glide through the trellis openings. Wonder if that’s unique in the avian world, or if other birds can do the same.

  3. Beth

    “A Sparrow Took a Slice of Twig” … by Emily Dickenson

    A Sparrow took a Slice of Twig
    And thought it very nice
    I think, because his empty Plate
    Was handed Nature twice —

    Invigorated, waded
    In all the deepest Sky
    Until his little Figure
    Was forfeited away —

  4. Beth

    To Kevin and Malachi,
    Here is a note from my friend Chiping, in reply to question earlier today about Mao’s attempt to eliminate sparrows in China. As you see, she remembers this very well. – Beth

    “The sparrow has made a comeback now. There are plenty of them everywhere in Beijing. I recall that Mao’s campaign started in the late 60s, and lasted to
    the early 70s. Sparrows, we were told by the authorities, were one of four major harmful creatures (The other three were flies, mosquitoes, and mice). School children were ordered to pull weeds from the ground and parks during school hours to help eradicate. I don’t remember any rewards offered for killing sparrows. At that time, rewards
    were such a rarity.”

  5. Malachi

    What IS the going rate on sparrows?:

    “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?” MATTHEW 29

    “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings?” LUKE 12:6

    “Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows” MATTHEW 31

    (By the way, a question: Does that last mean there are in fact SOME sparrows that are of more value than ‘ye’?
    Or is it, rather, that ‘ye’ are worth…really a lot of sparrows?)

    A sparrovian postscript comes from Virginia, an old London friend who writes from Shepherds Bush:
    ” I am delighted to hear about your garden and…to hear you have sparrows, which are dying out in England, god knows why. Could it be carbon emissions? Or could it be the emission from green fuel? Or the proliferation of the ghastly decking? No one knows.
    I did see one the other day, but it was a rare sighting. I have goldfinches, chaffinches, blue tits and all kinds feeding at my feeder – sign of mad old age I think, viewing them through binoculars from my new extension… but very pleasant.”

    [Decking? Explanation, anyone?]