THE ROOSTING OF THE SPARROWS
MOST species of birds like to roost in companies, partly because it is safer to do so, partly for the sake of companionship, and sometimes, in England at any rate, because by crowding together they keep each other warm. Birds have their favourite roosting places. Certain trees are patronised while others are not. Perhaps one clump will be utilised every night for a month or longer, then a move will be made to another clump. Later on a return may be made to the original site. I do not know what determines these changes of locality.
The sunset hour is, I think, the most interesting at which to watch birds. They seem to be livelier then than at any other time of the day; they are certainly more loquacious. The dormitory of the crows, the mynas, or the green parrots is a perfect pandemonium. Whilst listening to the uproar one can only suppose each member of the colony to be bubbling over with animal spirits and intent on recounting to his fellows all the doings of the day.
Most people may be inclined to think that it is impossible to derive much pleasure from observing so common a bird as the sparrow. This is a mistake. Often and often have I watched with the greatest pleasure the roosting operations of this despised bird. I know of a row of bushes that forms the dormitory of hundreds of sparrows. To enable the reader to appreciate what follows, let me say that the hedge in question is only some twenty yards long, its height is not much greater than that of a man, it is nowhere more than eight feet in breadth, and is within a hundred yards of an inhabited bungalow. Less than six yards away from it is a well, fitted with a creaking Persian wheel, at which coolies are continually working.
If you happen to pass this hedge within an hour of sunset, you will hear issuing from it the dissonance of many sparrows' voices. You stop to listen, and, as you wait, a flock of sparrows dives into the thicket. You look about to see whether any more are coming and observe nothing. Suddenly some specks appear in the air, as if spontaneously generated. In two seconds these are seen to be sparrows. Within half a minute of the time you first set eyes upon them they are already in the bushes. They are followed by another little flock of six or seven, and another and another. Flight after flight arrives in quick succession, each of which shoots into the roosting hedge. I use the word " shoot" advisedly, for no other term describes the speed at which they enter the bushes. Their flight, although so rapid, is not direct; it takes the form of a quavering zigzag. Some of the flocks do not immediately plunge into the bushes. They circle once, twice, thrice, or even oftener, before they betake themselves to their leafy dormitory. Sometimes part of a flight dive into the hedge immediately upon arrival, while the remainder circle round and then fling themselves into the bushes as though they were soldiers performing a well-practised manoeuvre ; the first bird to reach the bush entering at the nearest end, the next a little farther on, the third still farther, and so on, so that the last sparrow to arrive enters the hedge at the far end. Sometimes a flock perches for a time on a tree near by before entering the hedge. Those who have only noticed sparrows pottering about will scarcely be able to believe their eyes when they see the speed at which they approach the roosting place. For the moment they are transformed into dignified birds.
All this time those individuals already in the hedge are making a great noise. Their chitter, chitter, chitter never for a moment ceases or even diminishes in intensity. Once in the hedge, the sparrows do not readily leave it. There is much motion of the leaves and branches, and birds are continually popping out of one part of the bushes into another. It is thus evident that there is considerable fighting for places. If, while all this is going on, you walk up to part of the hedge and shake it, the birds disturbed will only fly a yard or two and at once settle elsewhere in the thicket.
Meanwhile the sun has nearly set; the coolies near by have ceased working and are kindling a fire within a couple of yards of the bushes. But the sparrows appear to ignore both them and their fire. Settling down for the night engrosses their whole attention.
As the sun touches the horizon the incoming flights of sparrows become fewer and fewer; and after the golden orb has disappeared only one or two belated stragglers arrive. Sparrows are early roosters. Something approaching three thousand of them are now perched in that small hedge, yet none are visible except those that pop in and out, when jockeyed out of positions they have taken up. But although only a few sparrows come in after the sun has set, it is not until fully fifteen minutes later that there is any appreciable abatement of the din. It then becomes more spasmodic; it ceases for half a second, to burst forth again with undiminished intensity.
Twenty minutes or so after sunset the clamour becomes suddenly less. It is now possible to discern individual voices. The noise grows rapidly feebler. It almost ceases, but again becomes louder. It then nearly stops a second time. Perhaps not more than twenty voices are heard. There is yet another outburst, but the twitterers are by now very sleepy. Suddenly there is perfect silence for a few seconds, then more feeble twittering, then another silence longer than the last.
It is not yet dark, there is still a bright glow in the western sky. The periods of silence grow more prolonged and the outbursts of twittering become more faint and of shorter duration.
It is now thirty-nine minutes after the sun has set and perfect stillness reigns. The birds must have all fallen asleep. But no! one wakeful fellow commences again. He soon subsides. It has grown so dark that you can no longer see the sparrow-hawk perched on a tree hard by. He took up his position there early in the evening, and will probably breakfast first thing to-morrow morning off sparrow!
You now softly approach the bushes until your face touches the branches. There are twenty or thirty sparrows roosting within fifteen inches of you. You cannot see any of them, but if you were to stretch forth your hand you could as likely as not catch hold of one. You disturb a branch and there is a rustling of a dozen pairs of wings, so close to you that your face is fanned by the wind they cause. You have disturbed some birds, but they are so sleepy that they move without uttering a twitter. You leave the bush and return an hour later. Perfect silence reigns. You may now go right up to the roosting hedge and talk without disturbing any of the three thousand birds. You may even strike a match without arousing one, so soundly do they sleep.
Those who wish to rid a locality of a superabundance of sparrows might well profit by the fact that the birds sleep so soundly in companies. Could anything be easier than to throw a large net over such a hedge and thus secure, at one fell blow, the whole colony ?