I was coming round the corner of the church last sunday when all of a sudden I saw two little birds on the tarmac in front of the condemned box hedge. I was amazed.They looked like sparrows. They were darting up into the hedge and pulling caterpillars out of it. The caterpillars didn’t seem to be an easy swallow. They were wrestled with, stabbed and chopped.
They were sparrows. A pair, male and female, the first I’d seen in London for years. I had to creep close and study them to be sure. After a few minutes they flew off, first one, then the other, flying east low and straight along the street.
They were eating box moth caterpillars, never seen in Britain before 2008, newcomers from eastern Asia. Like lily beetles and rosemary beetles the immigrants arrive in the south east and spread outwards. The first scouts had arrived in Waterloo late last autumn, advancing from Stockwell and Camberwell where they have entirely consumed just about every single ball, mound, hedge and pyramid of box. Winter intervened, a long reprieve. Then the hidden eggs hatched a week or two ago and already parts of the parterre hedges are almost bare, tattered threads.
There are many suggested explanations for the extinction of sparrows in most parts of London. The problem with all of them is that none of them fit London alone, so why are there still healthy populations of sparrows in other big 21st century cities? It seems that people have almost given up asking why. The RSPB has nothing new to say on the subject, preferring on the whole to devote their attention to more glamorous subjects, ospreys, peregrine falcons, puffins, sea eagles.
No single cause fits. And some believe that in the face of adversity sparrows, the birds Peter Ackroyd refers to as ‘indomitable’, like the people of London who are the cockney sparrows, get depressed and lose the will to live, and that appropriately for such a social bird this is somehow a collective phenomenon, not an individual one. Could it be like mass hysteria? No doubt there’s a parallel between the decline of sparrows and the increase in the prescribing of anti-depressants for cockneys.
One of the problems for pathologists is the lack of bodies. Have you ever seen a dead sparrow? Millions have died, but small dead birds vanish swiftly, so efficient are the processes of consumption and decay.
Maybe in London we have that ‘perfect storm’ business. All the causes coming together. No where to nest, foul air, millions of cats, and the vanishing of invertebrates. Have you seen any blackfly or greenfly this year? I’ve seen two or three little patches. Remember when you could go out every morning and carefully run finger and thumb up the new rose shoots till your hand was black with blackfly slime? Or each new stem of elder dark and furry with thick clusters, millions of aphids?
But now that a new and seemingly indomitable invertebrate, the box moth caterpillar has just arrived from eastern Asia, a couple of sparrows appear, as if resurrected. But too few, too late: the council is about to pull up all the box in the churchyard – hundreds of them, big and small – in an attempt to control the invasion. Maybe they hope to create a sort of fire break.
Earlier last Sunday music was flowing out of the church. There’s a black congregation that uses the church, I think they come together from across London. They were singing when I arrived at about 3. I went into the church to get the key to the shed. There must have been a couple of hundred people, lots of children, everyone nicely dressed up. I said to a woman who was getting tea together, nice singing! She smiled and said thankyou. They were singing the hymns of my childhood, with sincerity and confidence. After 5 they were still singing. They’d opened the door on the south side of the church. They were standing up for Jesus. Not the usual bouncy speed but slow and sonorous, which gave it a touch of melancholy.
Stand up, stand up for Jesus / Ye soldiers of the cross / Lift high his royal banner / It must not suffer loss.
I think it was the last hymn. Then I went around the east side of the church again, towards the memorial bench and the hedge where I’d seen the sparrows. An old man was sitting there, he had a powerful eagle-like nose and grey-white hair almost down to his shoulders. I’d said a brief hello to him earlier. As I was about to leave I nodded to him again and he looked at me and said, ‘Sparras!’
I said, ‘What?’
‘He said, ‘Sparras!’
I said, ‘Yes, I saw them too!’
He said, ‘I haven’t seen any for about three years!’
I said, ‘Neither have I!’
I showed him the caterpillars in the hedge. We spoke about the decline of cockneys and of cockney sparrows. The talk led inevitably to immigration. But he wasn’t a racist. He said they wanted cheap labour. I said it’s capitalism, a handy catch-all word. He agreed. He’d been a painter and decorator till he retired. He said they used to look after you, your employers, get you boots and tools and overalls. Now everybody wants work done cheap, and the only people who will do it cheap are foreigners. He was just passing through, never been there before, but he liked sitting in the churchyard, said it was peaceful.
It’s very rare that you get to talk to somebody about sparrows.