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March 7, 2013

Winter tree sparrow visitations have been rare on the hill

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Cooperstown Crier

---- — Tree sparrows are lovely little birds, most conspicuous for their russet caps, white breasts and a distinctive charcoal smudge about mid-breast that makes one think that they are perpetual Ash Wednesday celebrants.

Every once in a while I mistake one for a redpoll, but once turned around the differences become quite clear. Among their several endearing habits is the virtue of patience. Also a sense that hurried eating is for other birds. I often will see a lone sparrow sitting motionless on the base of the feeder, seemingly content to digest what he may have already eaten, confident that quiet time between nibbles is the better part of proper digestion. Unlike chickadees that fly in between the squirrel-proof mesh, grab a seed and take off in a matter of nanoseconds to a nearby branch to process their fare, these guys linger. It is as if they have a philosophical predisposition to eating that favors a more reasoned, rational, unhurried approach to the matter of survival.

I am by no means an American tree sparrow expert. I spend a great deal of time watching varied species gobble up the free winter fare we offer. Most fascinating are the starkly contrasting behaviors displayed by each species. In every respect it is an ongoing spectacle of diversity playing itself out. For close watchers of non-human behaviors, there is a lot to be learned, and extrapolated, when it comes to developing coping mechanisms in a culture marked by difference.

Birds have mapped out strategies for compromise and cooperation that would serve us well to emulate. Even when tiffs over territory occur matters are settled, if not always amicably, without recourse to the more violent remedies that seem to characterize human behavior. It appears likely that an evolutionary imperative is the need to resolve conflicts in ways conducive to communal harmony. Nature is not without its darker side, especially with respect to modes of survival. Predation is a basic survival tactic. It is not always pretty, but it is hardly ever about anything more than getting however many square meals a day a species might require.

A few days ago I observed a sparrow lazing about the feeder base. Actually, it is a good spot to set up shop since chickadees and other birds can be sloppy at times, discarding or flushing out seed that does not meet their immediate or dietary requirments. I would like to think he was ruminating on important philosophical concerns, perhaps on the nature of the good or the constituent elements of properly meted out justice. I turned away for a moment to record an observation on my data sheet. When I looked back I saw a chickadee sitting a few inches away from the sparrow. Neither moved. They seemed content to stare at one another as if at that moment there were no greater pleasure to be had. As one who believes there is too much chatter anyway, this seemed to me a perfect way of getting on with one another. No pressure to be witty or constrained to show off one’s intellect.

A writer I read some years ago remarked that she always aimed to get beyond intellect, to get to that place where pure and honest thought trumped intellectuality. In his autobiography, Bertrand Russell writes that there are few things more tedious than the conversation of well-informed people. I am very much like tree sparrows. I prefer sitting quietly, even in company, listening and mulling things over in my mind without feeling as if I need to toss in my two cents. Most of the time I feel as if two cents is pushing it. At any rate, the chickadee cut this little séance short in roughly 30 seconds. I like thinking that the three of us came away with something modestly profound to chew over later on. I know I did.

Winter tree sparrow visitations have been rare up here on the hill. By my reckoning five have taken up residence with us. Individual feeder sittings aside, I love watching as one clamps on to one of the suet feeders, especially on windy days, pecks out a morsel, sits a bit, perhaps feeling quite impressed by his skills and then gets down to the business of fueling up again. Once this week, a female Downy woodpecker alighted atop the suet cage. The sparrow stood its ground, stared right into the little woodpecker’s eyes, and she beat a hasty retreat to the nearby maple from whence she had come. She returned only when the sparrow saw fit to head for the hills.

Bird watching for me is as much about a genuine fascination with the species as it is the chance to think philosophically about the nature of life itself. As strained as it might seem to some, watching sparrows this week has helped me to think more clearly about one philosopher’s argument that reason and rationality ought to serve as the basis for all human action and thought. Be nice if that were an infectious attitude.