I suspect, in competition with the Rock Pigeon (Columba livia), there is no species of wild bird seen by more people more often than this one, the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). That is in part because they are native to most of Eurasia, and in part because the species has been established by humans in much of Australasia, Oceania (including Hawaii), the Americas and Africa. Also, they are not only tolerant of humans, they usually closely co-exist with people in the heart of towns and big cities, farms and villages, generally avoiding wilderness and uninhabited regions. When I was a child, they were more often referred to as “English Sparrows”, a misnomer for so widely distributed a species. They are predominately seed-eaters although they will eat insects, too, especially when feeding young. They are prolific and often hated as agricultural “pests”, and for “bullying” other bird species. On average they weigh about thirty grams, a tad over an ounce. They are often culturally associated with fecundity and lustfulness, and easy to see why when two or more males mix conspicuous breeding displays with very aggressive-looking fighting among themselves. Being common and lacking brightly pretty colours does not help make them attractive to many people.
But despite all that, I quite like them…the successful little immigrants who take advantage of what life offers, and that would include the two feeders I hang in the branches of a weeping mulberry tree below the window of the master bedroom in my home, which I use, in fact, as a studio and office. It faces north and on a bleak day in February I can look out while I am painting and see the House Sparrows in the mulberry. That is, in fact, the inspiration for this painting. Other, native species sometimes join them, but they are, for me, endlessly entertaining. They also, several times each winter, attract a passing Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus), at which time they plunge into the thickly branched heart of the mulberry while the frustrated hawk dances about, plunging a foot down through the intricacies of interlaced trigs and branches in forlorn hope of snagging a fresh, warm meal. As skilled a predator as the little hawks are, I’ve yet to see them catch a sparrow in that particular tree. Once the hawk leaves, I always wait and eventually am awarded by seeing individual sparrow heads pop up, one by one, looking around until, satisfied that the coast is clear, they emerge and continue chirping, feeding, resting and other activities. In my painting I exercised artistic licence and thinned the branches out considerably.
The birds are as they appear in February, but they change their appearance through the year, not by molting their feathers, but by wearing off the pale tips of them to reveal, in the males, solid black bibs in time to impress the females, in just another month or two. The dull-coloured beaks turn jet black. Those throat and upper breast-covering bibs vary in shape and size, apparently getting larger as the birds age. One of the things I like about portraying groups of birds of the same species is that it gives me a chance to show some of the “individual variation” that occurs within a species. There is no exact, “typical” appearance for any given kind of bird or mammal.
House Sparrows generally nest in cavities, or crevices, including under eaves and loose roof tiles. Their numbers have reportedly decreased in parts of their European native range, but they certainly are doing well overall. They show geographic variation, and already the first signs of “divergence” are appearing in birds in the Americas, as they inevitably evolve along a slightly different trajectory away from their ancestral “type”. This painting is in oils on compressed hardboard and is 24 by 18 inches.
Barry Kent MacKay
Bird Artist, Illustrator
Studio: (905) 472 9731
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31 Colonel Butler Drive
Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada