SPARROWS IN THE NURSERY
The sparrow, as every Anglo-Indian knows, is a bird that goes about dumping down nests in sahibs' bungalows. It is greatly assisted in this noble work by the native of India, who has brought to the acme of perfection the art of jerry-building. In the ramshackle, half-finished modern bungalow the rafters that support the ceiling never, by any chance, fit properly into the walls. There are thus in every room a number of cracks, holes, and crevices in which the sparrows love to nest. As a matter of fact, these are not at all safe nesting places. Apart from the fact that the nest is liable to be pulled down at any moment by an angry human being, the situation is dangerous, because there is nothing to prevent a restless young bird from falling out of the nest and thus terminating a promising career. A few days ago a servant brought me a baby sparrow that had fallen out of a nest in the pantry. I always feel inclined to wring the neck of any sparrow that fate has put within my grasp, for I have many a score to pay off against the species. Upon this occasion, however, I felt mercifully inclined, so took the young bird, which was nearly covered with feathers, and offered it bread soaked in milk. This it swallowed greedily. When the youngster was as full up inside as the Hammersmith bus on a wet day, I told the bearer to put it in the cage in which my amadavats dwell. When I left for office I directed the man to feed the new arrival. On my return in the evening the bearer informed me that the young hopeful had declined its food. Now, a young sparrow refuses to eat only when it is stuffed to the brim. It was thus evident that its parents had found it out and were feeding it, in spite of the fact that the nest from which it came was in the pantry on the east side of the house, while its new quarters were in the west verandah.
The next day a second sparrow fell out of the nest in the pantry and was also consigned to the amadavats' cage. At bed-time that night I took a look at the birds, and found that the two young sparrows had tucked themselves snugly in the seed tin! The next morning a third sparrow from the same nest was brought to me; it was put in the cage along with its brethren. As my office was closed on the day in question, I had the cage placed in front of my study window. I could thus watch the doings of the latest additions to my aviary. The hen sparrow does the lion's share of the feeding; she works like a slave from morning to night. At intervals, varying from one to ten minutes, throughout the day she appears with a beakful of food, which consists chiefly of green caterpillars.
It is the custom to speak of the sparrow as a curse to the husbandman. The bird is popularly supposed to live on grain, fruit, seedlings, and buds -: those of valuable plants by preference. There is no denying the fact that the sparrow does devour a certain amount of fruit and grain, but, so far from being a pest, I believe that the good it does by destroying noxious insects far outweighs the harm. Adult sparrows frequently feed on insects. I have watched them hawking flies in company with the swifts, and the skill displayed by the "spadger" showed that his was no prentice hand at the game.
Sparrow nestlings in the early stages are fed almost exclusively on caterpillars, grubs, and insects. As there are usually five or six baby sparrows in a brood, and as these have appalling appetites, they must consume an enormous number of insects. Let us work out a little sum. We may assume that the sparrow brings at least three caterpillars in each beakful of food she carries to her brood. She feeds them at least fifteen times in the hour, and works for not less than twelve hours in the day. I timed the sparrows in question to commence feeding operations at 5.30 a.m., and when I left the bungalow at 6 p.m. the birds were still at it. Thus the hen sparrow brings in something like 540 insects per diem to her brood. She feeds them on this diet for at least twenty days, so that the brood is responsible for no less than 10,000 insects, mostly caterpillars, before its units are ready to fend for themselves. According to Hume, the sparrow in India brings up two broods in the year. I should have doubled this figure, since the species appears to be always breeding. But it is better to understate than exaggerate. We thus arrive at the conclusion that the hen sparrow destroys each year over 20,000 insects, mostly injurious, in the feeding of her young. Add to this number those she herself consumes, those the cock eats, and those he brings to the nest, and you have a fine insect mortality bill.
The movements of the mother bird when feeding her young are so rapid that it is not easy to determine what it is she brings to the nest, even though the objects hang down from her beak ; the same applies to the cock. In order to make quite certain of the nature of the food she was bringing, I sought, by frightening her, to make her drop a beakful; accordingly, at one of her visits I tapped the window-pane smartly just as she was about to ram the food down the gaping mouth of a young bird. She flew off chirruping with anger and alarm, but kept her bill tightly closed on the food she was carrying. As the parents had to feed the young ones through the bars of a cage the process required some manipulation, and, in spite of its care, the bird sometimes dropped part of its burden; but, almost before I had time to move, it had dashed down to the ground and retrieved it. However, by dint of careful watching I managed to bang the window immediately after the hen had dropped something of a dark colour. Having frightened her away I rushed outside and found that the object in question was part of a sausage-shaped sac containing a number of tiny green grubs. After a few minutes the hen returned with her beak full. Her fright had made her suspicious, so she perched on the verandah trellis-work and looked around for a little. Nine times she flew towards the cage, but on each occasion her courage failed her, to the intense disgust of her clamouring brood. At the tenth attempt she plucked up sufficient courage to feed the young birds.
At a subsequent visit she dropped a caterpillar, and I frightened her away before she could retrieve it. I found it to be alive and about an inch in length.
On another occasion I saw her ramming something black down the throat of a young hopeful. Frightening her away, I went outside and found the youthful bird making valiant attempts to swallow a whole mulberry. But it was not often that she gave them fruit; green caterpillars formed quite nine-tenths of what she brought in ; the remainder was composed chiefly of grubs, with an occasional grasshopper or moth. As the young grew older the proportion of insect food given to them diminished until, when they were about twenty-two days old, their diet was made up principally of grain.
The day on which the third young sparrow was put into the cage was a warm one, so at 2 p.m., when the shade temperature was about 115°, I brought the cage into the comparatively cool bungalow, for the sake of the amadavats. The cock sparrow witnessed the removal of the cage and did not hesitate to give me a bit of his mind. In a minute or so the hen returned with her beak full of green caterpillars. When she found the cage gone, she, too, expressed her opinion of me and of mankind in general in no uncertain terms. It was the last straw. Earlier in the day I had removed one of the baby sparrows from the cage and placed it in a cigar-ash tray outside the cage. The hen had affected not to notice that anything had happened, and fed it in the ash-tray as though she were unconscious of the removal. When, however, the whole cage and its contents disappeared it was quite useless for her to pretend that nothing was wrong, so she treated me to her best " Billingsgate."
After the cage had been inside for about three-quarters of an hour the young "spadgers" began to feel the pangs of hunger, and made this known by giving vent to a torrent of chirrups which differed in no way from those that make the adult so offensive. All that the poor mother could do was to answer from the outside. I felt, that afternoon, that I was paying off with interest some of my score against the sparrow.
The next day I did not take the cage into the bungalow, because I wanted to ascertain whether sparrows feed their young throughout the day, or whether they indulge in a noonday siesta. They kept it up, at their respective rates, throughout the day, although the thermometer in the shade must have risen to 115°. After the hen had disburdened herself of the food she brought, she would perch for a moment on the trellis, and pant with open beak as though she were thoroughly exhausted.
I have long been trying to ascertain how birds in the nest obtain the liquid they require. Do the succulent caterpillars, on which young sparrows are fed, provide them with sufficient moisture, or do the parents water them? Although I spent several hours in watching those sparrows, I am not able to answer the question satisfactorily. I placed a bowl of water on the ground near the cage, hoping that this would tempt the hen bird to drink, and that I should see her carry some of the liquid to her offspring. But she took no notice of the water. She certainly used to come to the cage sometimes with her beak apparently empty, and yet insert it into the open mouth of a young one. Was she then watering the nestling, or did her beak hold some small seeds that did not protrude? It seems incredible that unfledged birds exposed to the temperature of an Indian summer require no water; nevertheless, I never actually saw any pass from the crop of the parents to those of the youngsters.