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The Language of Sparrows


The language of sparrows is a language of inflectives. Performative, brash, and soft: A lot of the ‘words’ of Sparrowtongue are really subtle escalations of tone; whether shouted or whispered, the same word can mean different things in different contexts.

Female House Sparrow 2016
Rose Sparrow

chow, chep, chew:  A soft, quick sound, meaning “Hi” “Hello” or “Over here.” Used as a sort of sparrow sonar to indicate to the flock where any individual bird is, or to indicate where food can be found.

churr-chrr-chr!: A warning chatter, meaning “Danger!” “Stay Away!” Used predominantly by the male bull sparrows in their role as look-out. Also used to warn of crows, cats, aerial predators, humans.

tseew, tseew: A whisper-soft whistle used by worried fledgelings and adolescents, particularly to communicate with their mothers.

tsark!: A sharp, screeching call used by bulls fighting others for mating rights, and females when they are disturbed or hassled, knocked from their perch. I think of it as a sound of indignation. “Watch out!”

phee-pip?: Softer than tsark, a louder than chow, chep, or chew. A questioning exclamation, definition unknown at present.

fthudder: A very dramatised wing flutter, used in flaring flights and aerial swerves to warn you to stay away from the food and/or young.


Sparrow and hawk

little sparrow


A shadow explodes through our garden. A shriek of feathers and noise; and I get a sense of what Robert Macfarlane must have been talking about in The Wild Places. The flaring shape is felt in the heart before the eye, too fast for the brain to make sense of, but an animal instinct makes me duck all the same. For all of the smaller creatures there are really only two defences against aerial predators: run or hide, and for our resident community of house sparrows here in our garden their only option now is to run. What follows is a short-lived but ferocious aerial chase, jet-fighter manoeuvres. Both the Sparrowhawk and the sparrows have short bodies and fatter, fan-like wings than say, the Buzzards or Kites. Neither can glide or gracefully soar like their bigger counterparts, because their wings are both designed for the jigsaw-sharp turns and narrow avenues of low-level terrain.

The exchange is all over in an instant, the sparrow escapes, the hawk vanishes. They call it a ‘flash of the eye’ but it feels more like the thudduduhr of heart-hammer, somehow pre-vision and instinctive. The sparrowhawk that has been piercing our tiny garden is gone, leaving the shattered remains of the small, ornamental paint-your-own bird-table on the floor, seed everywhere. It takes three wire pins and a modded piece of scrap wood to put the table back together again, and now it is hanging once more from it’s hook as if nothing had ever happened. The usually chattering sparrows are silent for a stall but return, wary, to the table. It is early summer, and I guess that neither sparrow nor hawk can afford to be gone long as both are flying ragged to feed hungry chicks.


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