If there’s a list of birds I hate, the house sparrow must be near the top. It’s a bird of farms, McDonald’s (house sparrows love spilled French fries), and city parks. House sparrow plumage is made up of browns and black. No skylark, it chirps monotonously rather than sings. It expels tree swallows and bluebirds from their nesting cavities. Yet it is the same sparrow as the species Jesus referred to in one of his teachings: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matt. 29:10).
I have been thinking about sparrows and other rather non-spectacular birds lately. Just now we were looking at a nearly dried-up pond, with edges of quite ordinary mud, a partly-sunken rotting log and a duck-shaped lump on it. It was a duck: a female blue-winged teal taking her ease. (For a second she stretched out her wing and the blue shoulder and green metallic secondary flight feathers sparkled, but then it was back to being a lump.)
In the field beyond the pond, voles – a plague of voles this year – scurried about on their endless quest for food and sexual congress. Voles – blackish, some brown, short legs, short tail, buck teeth – are not exactly glamorous. Some people call them mice, but voles they remain: common and unremarkable.
My friend Jim once looked at a group of us (then much younger) at a church Bible study meeting and mused, “I feel a little sorry for God; he doesn’t exactly get the best people.”
Jim was right: God gets the sparrows, the lumps, the voles. When he gets the wood ducks, the scarlet tanagers, the Steller’s jays, the snowy egrets, they often prove vain and disinterested in being part of a concatenation of loser-look-alikes.
Browns, greys and dull blacks do occasionally impress, however. This summer we have been blessed by the almost continuous presence of three juvenile great grey owls (actually more brown than grey) which hunt from low perches or posts, hunting voles in the daylight. They are quite tame; we can often get within 25 feet (eight metres) of them. They sort of gawk at us, too, thinking that we are pretty unspectacular types. Maybe they consider us hobbits, which – all things considered – might be complimentary.
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