In the weeks before my father’s March 2001 passing, he began jotting notes about his Port City boyhood and love of natural history. Tentatively titled “Recollections of a Zoologist, ” the charming manuscript consists of several dozen handwritten pages in an aquamarine clothbound ledger. I keep it in my office now, and whenever I want to conjure Dad’s spirit, I take it down and lose myself in its pages. It’s full of all kinds of wonderful things, but one section in particular has always stuck with me. It has to do with the English sparrows of Mobile.
These little birds were ubiquitous, Dad declared, thanks to horses. “The fact that horses were in common use downtown meant lots of oats-rich horse manure in the streets, adequate to support swarms of English sparrows.” When these tiny brown and gray birds weren’t fluttering about the business quarter, he continued, they were happily building nests in the creases of the fold-up awnings that many of the old houses had to protect their porches from blowing rain. “The nests were amorphous masses of grasses, string and other material, ” Dad explained, “formed so there was a tunnel to the next cavity. As this species nests year-round in southern Alabama, the birds’ metallic chirping was almost constant during daylight hours.” I have always been intrigued that Dad took the trouble to include these bits about English sparrows. Most ornithologists and amateur bird lovers consider them beneath notice at best and unwelcome pests at worst.
Like many other problematical species, the English sparrow, or house sparrow as it is more commonly called, is an import, first introduced to the U.S. in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1850. The hope was that these birds would polish off the inchworms that were plaguing the city’s shade trees. In 1883, other communities followed suit, including Auburn, Anniston and Clayton, Ala. Before long, English sparrows had spread to every corner of the land. Wherever people were, there English sparrows were also, from nests atop the Empire State Building to crevices at the bottom of Pennsylvania mine shafts. But rather than a benefit, the birds proved a major nuisance — devouring good seed, spreading parasites and diseases and muscling out native species.
For my own part, however, I rather enjoy the sparrows. Although there aren’t so many retractable awnings now and even fewer horses, the little birds continue to prosper here. Walking down Dauphin Street, I observe them hopping beneath the outdoor restaurant tables, eagerly scarfing down the riches that fall from above. Heading up Royal Street to my bank, I spy them flitting among the buildings, lampposts and street furniture. Practically every step of any outside perambulation is accompanied by their chirps, which I find pleasant. To me, it is the sound of life, of one unassuming creature’s determination to make its way amid the urban bustle. And as I know from my father’s notes, it was the soundtrack of his Mobile. This moves me very much. I hear the English sparrows and think of him.
John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”
text by John S. Sledge • photo by kathy hicks