COCK ROBIN'S MURDERER
NO bird, except possibly the Indian crow, has been the object of so much vilification as the sparrow:
" The spink and the sparrow Are the devil's bow and arrow."
So runs the country adage, and the farmers act up to its sentiments. They unite to form "sparrow clubs." These benevolent institutions are founded with the pious object of destroying as many as possible of the arrows of the Prince of Darkness. But the hatred of the sparrow is by no means confined to the yokel.
Respectable ornithologists vie with one another in inventing hard names for the pushing little bird. Thus Lord Lilford called him Passer impudicus; Tristram dubs him Passer papisticus. Even more scathing is Irby's name for him -: Passer damnabilis. These denominations, however, all pale into insignificance before the expressive epithet of the farm labourer, which may be Latinized into Passer sanguineus !
"The sparrow," writes Masius, "is a vulgar bird -: a proletarian, with all the cunning and vices of his class. Slight and persecution are his inheritance. Even in the Bible it is said, Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?' and in Aristophanes even seven are offered for an obole. His dirty colour, his brown jacket, his reddish-brown head and sooty cheeks, his dumpy figure, his bustly flight, gait, voice, demeanour -: in short, all betray his low birth and vulgar mind.
" But the Pariah avenges himself on the society which has expelled him by his truly cynical shamelessness.... The sparrow is an Atheos, a wild Communist, but shrewd, active, and untiring. . . . When the bold vagabond has fixed himself anywhere neither force nor cunning is able to turn him out. Not in vain has he associated with men, and learned from them craft and wickedness. It is not easy to scare this paragon of audacity, or to inspire him with respect. He is more than a sceptic; he is a decided freethinker. In presumptuous security, he seats himself on the nose or arm of the fluttering, clappering ghost, to whom the charge of the garden is committed. In its very shadow he bids it defiance, and thus, it may be said, enjoys the fruit of his wickedness with a heightened consciousness of his transgression. If he has happily escaped from a net or a pea-shooter, he makes a tremendous outcry; jeers at and abuses the awkward fowler from his hiding-place, and anon the whole scoundrelly fraternity chime in with all the power of their lungs."
This was, of course, written of the sparrow as he is found in Europe. The Indian bird, although he belongs to the same species -: Passer domesticus -: can give his Western cousin points in the matter of evil-doing. " London sparrows," writes Lockwood Kipling, " are said to be familiar, but when compared with their Indian brethren their manners are marked by dignity and cold reserve." This savours of exaggeration. Under no circumstances whatever can any sparrow be dignified. Add 25 per cent to the impudence, 20 per cent to the rowdyness, and 15 per cent to the vulgarity of the cockney bird, and you will arrive at a tolerably accurate estimate of the character of the sparrow that torments us who live in this Land of Regrets.
Far be it from me to attempt to whitewash the sparrow. I merely desire to present him in his true colours. This being so, I cannot help saying that the bird is not so black as he is depicted. He possesses the virtues of his class equally with its vices. Like the London cad, the sparrow is ever ready for a fight. He allows himself to be drawn into an affray on the smallest pretext. He is not wanting in pluck, for he does not hesitate to attack a bird several sizes larger than himself. This, however, is somewhat discounted by the fact that he is perfectly well aware that, the moment the fight begins, all his companions will come to his assistance.
Still, the sparrow is a bold bird. His supreme indifference to the crows is a sufficient proof of this. Nor is he afraid of man. I once stayed in an hotel in India in which a colony of sparrows had taken up their quarters, and enjoyed board and residence free of charge. At meal times ten or twenty of them would take up positions on the ledge of a dormer window and thence swoop down upon the edibles whenever an opportunity presented itself. The sparrow is said to be terribly destructive to crops. So he is, but this is because he is so numerous. We should also bear in mind that he destroys large quantities of insects, some of which are presumably injurious ones. Sparrows, in moderation, probably conduce to the welfare of the farmer; but, unfortunately, it is not often that we have sparrows in moderation. The truth of the matter is that it is not so much what he does as the way in which he does it that makes the sparrow so offensive.
For example, any fair-minded person will allow that when a cock bird goes a-courting that bird is at liberty to make a fool of itself. The sparrow, of course, does this, and, if he ended here, no one would have a word to say against the proceeding. But unfortunately the sparrow is not satisfied merely with acting idiotically. He insists on selecting for his trysting-place the window-ledge of a busy man's study, and drives the unfortunate occupant to the verge of madness by his " swellings " and his "turkey-cocks." Nor is this the worst feature in the sparrow's courtship. If the amatory professions of the bird were genuine, if all his bowing and scraping were the true outward expression of his inward feelings, one would be content to put up with a great deal at his hands.
As a matter of fact, sparrows of either sex are incapable of any real conjugal affection. Cowper discovered this trait in passerine character and thus expressed himself: -:
" The sparrow, meanest of the feathered race, His fit companions finds in every place, With whom he filches the grain that suits him best, Flits here and there, and late returns to rest; And whom if chance the falcon makes his prey, Or hedger with his well-aimed arrow slay, In no such loss the gay survivor grieves, New love he seeks, and new delight receives."
The above is gospel truth.
I know a man who once slew in succession seven cock-sparrows. It happened in this wise. A couple of sparrows determined to build in his verandah. He willed otherwise, and, by way of showing that he meant what he said, murdered the cock-bird. Did the widowed hen sit and mope ? Did she shed tears of lamentation ? Did she call upon the gods to witness the cruel blow that had fallen upon her ? Did she " in soft murmurs tell the trees her pain " ? Nothing of the kind. For a minute or so she swore lustily at the slayer of her husband; she then flew away, to return five minutes later with a second husband, and together they set to work at the nest.
The second cock-bird shared the fate of number one. The hen-sparrow then returned with number three, and continued to replace her murdered husbands until she had lured six to their destruction. Then my friend stayed his hand. He was prostrated by the cruel and cynical heartlessness of the hen-sparrow. But she had her own way. She brought up a family in that verandah.
I do not hold it to be an offence for a bird to build its nest inside my house, provided the bird does not molest the human inhabitants of the building. If a winged creature chooses to rear a family in the space between the ceiling-cloth and the rafters of my bungalow, I say, by all means let it do so. That is not the site I should have selected for a habitation, were I a bird, but that is neither here nor there ; if the dirty, dark hole meets with the approval of the sparrow, let it bring up its family in it. It is only when the parents insult me every time they enter or leave the nest, that I begin to grow angry with the birds.
I naturally ask what I have done that they should wake me every morning before sunrise, and, in the course of the day, hurl at me all the swear-words they know.
All sparrows behave thus, but, just as the Madras crow is more impudent than any other crow, so does the insolence of the Madras sparrow exceed the insolence of every other sparrow, not excepting the London bird. I am not exaggerating when I say that the sparrows once evicted me from an hotel. I will not name the hostel, for I do not consider that it deserves an advertisement. It must suffice that the roof of the rooms occupied by me had in its structure a number of iron rafters provided with ledges. Upon these the sparrows held shouting matches.
And "what a dissonance is the sparrow's tone! Of all the Babel confusion of bird tongues, there are few more displeasing than this. All the boorish vulgarity of his nature is expressed in that tone!"
Well, I had to listen the whole day, not to one sparrow, but to a large colony, and, judging by the uproar, envy, hatred, malice, falsehood, deceit, and jealousy reigned in that colony. I was awakened in the morning -: my first in Madras -: to find that the crows had eaten up my chota haziri, and that the sparrows were fighting over the crumbs left by the crows.
Throughout the day those sparrows mocked me. In vain did I try to eject them. I flicked at them with a towel. They flew out at one window and in at the other, thoroughly enjoying the game. I continued the unequal contest for forty-eight hours, and then, having girt up my loins, betook myself to an hotel where the sparrows did not trouble.
The sparrow is no respecter of persons. He swears at crowned heads, treats viceroys with contempt, and gibes at bishops. Nothing is sacred with him. He forces his way into the seraglio and stares impudently at the unveiled inmates. He struts into the halls of justice, and there commits contempt of court He invades church, chapel, and cathedral, and, as Lockwood Kipling hath it, "perches on the organ pipes in full blast, and chatters loudly through the sermon."
One of his favourite pastimes is to sit on a beam under the eaves of the verandah and contemplate the human occupants. His stare on such occasions is equalled in impertinence only by that with which the cockney, spending Saturday afternoon at Hampton Court, annoys the occupants of the houseboats on the Thames. Doubtless, if we only understood them, we should find the personal remarks of the sparrow as insulting as his stare. Needless to say, the sparrow is not aware of his deficiencies. He thinks himself a mighty fine fellow. And in truth he is not a bad-looking bird, in spite of his squat figure, his coarse beak and vulgar tail. In England, one seldom has the opportunity of seeing the sparrow at his best, for there he is nearly always begrimed with soot and dust, but in India we can distinguish the smart grey crown that adorns his head, and his white shirt-front and black tie. The female is of course a homely-looking bird.
Where the sparrow makes a mistake is in imagining that he is a fine singer. Any one who could disabuse his mind on this point would be rendering a great service, not only to mankind, but to the whole of the bird world. This I fear is an impossible task. Until the end of the chapter the sparrow will continue to think that he alone of all birds can sing, and to look upon the vocal attempts of all other birds as impertinent imitations of his voice!
In this world one, or more, of three things are necessary to ensure success. These are ability, impudence, and a friend at court. Of the three, ability is by far the least important, and may, I think, be neglected. Impudence, on the other hand, may, without much exaggeration, be said to be the one thing needful to succeed in this wicked world.
Of this invaluable quality the sparrow has an inexhaustible supply. He is the most successful bird in the world. He is the most numerous fowl in Asia and in Europe. He has invaded America and taken the country by storm. He is the revenge of the Old World for the Yankee invasion. The sparrow has lately extended his kingdom to Australia and New Zealand, where he is now one of the commonest of birds. But for the fact that young sparrow is a dish highly esteemed by the crow, the whole of India would be brown with sparrows. Thus the crow is not an unmixed evil. But, in spite of his natural enemies the sparrow is a very fortunate bird. His impudence and "push" enable him to find food in places into which more timid creatures fear to venture. His very commonness is a blessing to him. It saves him from being caught and caged.
A sparrow, as such, has no market value. It is true that he is sometimes caught, painted yellow, and passed off on some innocent as a canary. But even when this happens his captivity is not of long duration. His happy purchaser takes him home and gives him a bath, when lo ! the homely brown begins to show through the dye. This is a sad calamity for the owner, but a joy to the sparrow, for it means his liberation. His little cage is opened, and he takes to his wings, chirruping with delight to find himself free once more, and vows that never again will he be such a fool as to be caught by bird-lime.