By Guest Blogger Dudley Carlson
... (Groundwood Books, 2018), that my "little brown bird" originated not in England but in the Middle East. In prehistoric times, she tells us, it was a migratory bird of fields until the point when humans began to grow grain. That was the beginning of its long period of adaptation to humans, learning to live near them in order to forage among their grain crops, build homes in their dwellings, and give up the need to migrate.
But, she points out, as it learned to forage, it also began to gather at the end of nesting season into large flocks to glean seeds from crops, and as its numbers increased it became a pest. An Egyptian hieroglyph of a House Sparrow meant "bad," and archaeologists have discovered that these little birds were captured to feed to hunting falcons. Just how and why is one of the most fascinating stories in this book.
From the Middle East, the sparrow spread across Europe and Asia, following settlers and explorers. So successful was it that humans hung nesting places for it in order to catch and eat it, yet it continued to multiply. Some people, particularly farmers, realized that it had a helpful side, eating insect pests and the seeds of weeds. And then, when European settlers began to spread into America, it was imported because of its familiarity, to remind settlers of the homes they had left.
As it spread in the nineteenth century, the House Sparrow was first welcomed and then, again, seen as a pest. In the twentieth century, in China, its close relative the Eurasian Tree Sparrow was such a pest that Mao declared it an enemy, instructed people to band together to destroy it, and possibly as many as a billion sparrows were killed.
Thornhill concludes with illustrations of this bird's adaptability and the degree to which it stands, both literally and figuratively, as a "canary in the coal mine," illustrating human destructiveness toward natural species and processes. A brief glossary, map, description of the sparrow's life cycle, list of animals that live alongside humans, and resources are appended.
Though presented in picture book format, this story is unusually rich in surprises and should interest older readers and adults as well as those who respond first to its handsome illustrations.
SFBBO member Dudley Carlson, a biologist’s daughter, grew up in a family of birders and was Manager of Youth Services at Princeton (NJ) Public Library for 25 years. She believes that if children enjoy learning about birds and understand how important they are to our environment, then birds, nature and people will have a better chance at a healthy future.
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