A bird in the hand

We tend to assign an elevated status to things that we see rarely. Shooting stars. Two dollar bills. DeLoreans. We don’t have to look far to find more analogies—take the bird world and their prized sightings like the California condor or ivory-billed woodpecker. Heck, take the folks we spotted recently in Mt Auburn Cemetery—a notable destination for local birders—who stopped in their tracks to marvel at an owl, nesting in the hollow of a tree trunk.

Sure, we get as excited as the next birder about seeing a red-tailed hawk perched majestically on a branch, but for your consideration, we would like to submit the humble house sparrow, which we’re far more likely to encounter in our urban and suburban landscapes.

Not long after our owl sighting, we were enjoying an early spring lunch outside when an enterprising house sparrow landed on our picnic table, close enough to touch, as if to say, “hey, you got any of that pita left?”

Smaller than a pigeon, smarter than a seagull, the house sparrow has gumption that’s worthy of our admiration. In What It’s Like to Be a Bird, David Allen Sibley notes that “this species has proven to be extremely adaptable, and has spread by taking advantage of opportunities that others do not. They live in small groups all year, and one of the secrets of their success may be the fact that groups are better at problem solving.”

Our Cantabrigian house sparrow was brazen, and not at all afraid of us. “Tough, adaptable, [and] aggressive,” as the Audobon Field Guide explains. Better at problem solving. It doesn’t take an ornithologist to tell you that there’s a house sparrow in each of us, working together as part of a small group, seizing on opportunity, thriving in a landscape that can be both hostile (hello, pandemic) and full of promise.

Sure, we’ve been dreaming of more wide open spaces and happier times as of late. But day to day, we’re still focused on what’s in front of us, making our own territory workable and livable. We may not be in the rarefied air of a bald eagle, but we have held on, adapted—even thrived, and that’s worth more than two in the bush.