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5 september 2012

Sparrows are ubiquitous, the ultimate "commensal" animal, as Kim Todd explains in the Sparrow volume for Reaktion Books' Animal series. They live wherever we live, and eat pretty much whatever we eat. (Todd prints a wonderful picture of a sparrow prising a strand away from a plate of spaghetti, 26.)

As ubiquitous commensals, sparrows are often too common to notice. They tend to attract human concern and human commentary when they become too plentiful, or sometimes when they disappear; the waxing and waning of sparrow populations is, like so many other big-picture things about animals, mysterious.

Individual sparrows, despite their small size and lack of weaponry, are very tough customers. They can live in harrowingly extreme environments (the depths of coal mines, the heat of Death Valley), and they are pretty much imperturbable in their quest for food and reproduction. This ultra-adaptibility means that if you invite sparrows into sparrowless habitats, they are likely to breed like rabbits, or Asian carp, or kudzu.

One of the more appealing (or appalling, depending on your perspective) real-life characters in Sparrow is 19th-century American naturalist Elliott Coues. Coues was much reviled in his lifetime, because he was an implacable enemy of the plucky little sparrow. Not so much an individual plucky sparrow – Coues was not especially bloodthirsty – as the exotic "English sparrow" as a species. The "English" or Old World house sparrow had been introduced into American cities after the Civil War to eat insects, as if there weren't enough American birds to do that already. (And in a sense, perhaps there weren't; the postwar growth of megacities in North America meant a new kind of habitat that Old World birds, familiar for many generations with London and Paris, could best exploit.)

The "English sparrow" didn't stay placidly in New York area parks, naturally. It soon spread to nearly every circum-human habitat that America had to offer. In so doing, it crowded out native New World species like the bluebird (when did you last see one of them?) Coues, alarmed by the dwindling of native species, advised campaigns to restore an earlier avian ecosystem. And advising the killing of lots of chirpy little cutesters didn't go over so well with the American public.

Coues was way ahead of his time. He realized that sparrows were one of the suite of human commensals that threatens global biodiversity – even if he mightn't have used that 21st-century terminology to express his ideas. There was good reason to fear the sparrow, as harbinger of a less-diverse planet. But by the same token, there was little humans could do about the sparrow threat once they had put it into motion. The same factors that led to the sparrow explosion also led to the sparrow's indestructibility. And when sparrow populations do crash, by means of human agency or not, it's usually a signal that something is very wrong with the local ecology.

Todd documents some of the stranger anti-sparrow campaigns of modern times. Attempts by Coues's allies to trap or shoot the birds seem half-hearted by comparison to Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward, with its obsessive insistence on eradication of sparrows. Mao seemed to believe that the great commensal species – sparrows, but also rats, mosquitoes (more parasites than commensals, I'll grant), and flies – could be wiped out if the socialist masses set their minds to it. Why this was desirable was even less clear than if it was possible; certainly rats and mosquitoes should be under a certain amount of control to check diseases, but eliminating them sets off unforeseen consequences in the para-human ecosystem as a whole. And so it was with Chinese sparrows in the 1950s and 60s: insect plagues followed the suppression of the birds, making communities far worse off than if they'd just left the sparrows alone.

The Reaktion animal books are often largely devoted to the study of artistic representations of the animal under study. Sparrows suffer here; there just aren't many pictures of them, or great literary accounts of them. Todd cites Catullus, Jesus, and Hamlet, but has few other sparrow references to gather. Fortunately, the sparrow is a common motif in Chinese and Japanese painting. Sparrows strike a note of overlooked obliqueness that makes them perfect subjects for the restrained, asymmetrical aesthetics of Asian art. And they can be evoked by a brushstroke or two. Todd's own book is similarly slight, and similarly attractive.

Todd, Kim. Sparrow. London: Reaktion, 2012.