Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Laura's Best Bird EVER: House Sparrow Lullabies

House Sparrow at Bar Harbor

The first birds I was ever aware of were little sparrows who gathered in bushes all around our two-flat apartment building in Chicago. I’d watch them hopping about in the weedy lawn when I was riding my tricycle on the sidewalk, and I could see and hear them from our living room or my bedroom. The cheeps came loud and clear when our windows were open, but even in winter, if I listened very hard, the comforting sound seeped through the closed windows into my hungry ears.

House Sparrows were the quintessential city birds—I noticed them at my Grandpa’s house and various picnic grounds in Chicago forest preserves as well as at home. And they were there when we moved to a blue-collar suburb, right there beneath my bedroom window yet again. I could hear them through the open windows of St. John Vianney Catholic Elementary School, and sometimes even when I was at Mass. When the first McDonalds restaurant opened in our town during the late 50s, it was my little sparrows who hopped up and looked at me with a very Oliver Twistian, “Please, Laura, I want some more” look, which I of course obliged with French fries.

Central Park Zoo House Sparrow

House Sparrow cheepings formed a warm and comforting, ever-present background in the soundtrack of my earliest memories. I grew up in a home of strife and violence, and when my parents were on the rampage, if I hid behind our juniper bushes or retreated to my bedroom, I could close my eyes and focus on my sparrows’ friendly chattering. I’d imagine that they were telling one another about their day’s adventures, giving warm encouragement and loving advice, or simply gathering around what passed for a happy kitchen table in their world, telling stories and jokes. I especially liked imagining that they included me as part of their circle of family and friends. This was long before the TV show The Waltons, but I’d settle into bed each night hungrily listening to their soft good-nights to one another, and maybe even to me. After I said my prayers, I’d always whisper good-night to my sparrows. I knew that not even God forgot about them.

House Sparrow

On my first day of school in first grade, an assistant pastor came to our class and asked if anyone could say their ABCs. I waved my hand in a most Hermione Granger sort of way, and he called on me. When I finished, he smiled warmly and handed me what we Catholic children called a “holy card.” It depicted the hand of God cradling a tiny baby bird—what I assumed must be a sparrow. Now I looked at that card when I said my prayers at bedtime, listening to the music of cheeping sparrows in the background. These tiny birds seemed to be carrying my prayers directly to heaven. 

(Not the same card. I can't find a photo of it anywhere.)
I knew my sparrows were properly called House Sparrows from as far back as I can remember. My parents and Grandpa must have been calling them “sparrows” from the start, and when my Grandpa gave me the “Little Golden Activity Book” Bird Stamps when I was five, a male was clearly pictured and labeled as a House Sparrow.

House Sparrow in Little Golden Activity Book: Bird Stamps

It wasn’t until I took ornithology in 1975 that I learned how damaging they’ve been to bluebirds and other cavity-nesting birds as an invasive species in North America. I can appreciate that and feel sad that this Pandora’s box was ever opened during the 1800s when sparrows were brought here by homesick Europeans, even as I can’t see a House Sparrow in any urban area or theme park without smiling at these Artful Dodgers who bring back some of my loveliest memories of childhood.

House Sparrow

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