The most familiar and enigmatic garden birds have been feeding on nothing again. Six beaks probed the branches of the winter-bare rose bush, four beaks descended to peck at the ground beneath, one beak washed her meal down with a sip from the pond. Every day they return and every day I scan the soil, and interrogate the impervious hide of the rose, for anything edible, in vain. Do the birds milk the thorns?
The house sparrows lived up to their name over the winter, sleeping three metres from my bed. Frosty cheeps from the clematis spoke of another night survived. The sparrow song has swollen to a full dawn chorus now, though they are not early risers and their “song” is nothing more than an exclamation mark – a cheep, a chirp, a chirrup.
While the garden blackbird, robin and dunnock plunder the scales for melody, the sparrows strike a percussive note. They shout at the double glazing, they open our windows, they release the spring. There is something we recognise as human-like in their song, for they are the only birds around exchanging dialogue, as cheep answers cheep. And they bicker. A gabble of rattling calls brought me to the patio window, and, looking up into the clematis, I saw half a dozen bobbing sparrow arses. They were, quite literally, hopping mad.
In 2002, the year when Passer domesticus went on the red list of endangered birds, I followed a fashion and put up a three-chambered sparrow terrace under the eaves. I quickly discovered that although they are colonial nesters they are not that convivial; each pair has an urban mentality, defending a tiny territory a metre beyond their nest hole. Only one cavity was ever occupied by sparrows in those first springs, and then the box was abandoned – until now. Our local flock is a nesting tornado, shifting location from year to year, and this spring it is our turn to be noisily blessed. Three pairs hacked at the Russian vine next door for bedding, flying off with full beaks to three points of the compass. Sparrow lives alternate between nesting, chattering and feeding – and I still don’t feel I understand our nearest neighbours.