Sparrows in the hedge

The most striking things I heard today were the sparrows. Most of them live in the hedge at the end of our garden, where it backs onto the railway, but there are some under the eaves where our house joins our neighbours’. Last year there were two broods born in the hedge, and this year around fifteen birds are flitting above, or dotting the hedge’s new, highest shoots like pricks on manuscript paper.

We’re south of the river here, so these aren’t the cockney sparrows of folk sayings. These are more like midweek teenagers, throwing chips by the bus stop and teasing each other to try their luck in the off license. They hang out in gangs, drawn together by nothing more than accidents of birth. A robin has tried to make his territory here – on the fat balls, the greedy bugger – and I can’t always tell who has the upper hand, he or they.

When I went out mid-morning today I was hit by a wall of noise. Every sparrow, chirping at once. Not the usual rising and falling, filigree counterpoint of spring birdsong, but a sheet of sound, rectangular and opaque. It would all stop at once, then start again. In between they span around the air just above the garden, sounds like shards. There’s something about the spatialisation of birdsong, how it draws your mind out of your skull and stretches it across the sky. We’re used to placing sounds or sound-making objects within our field of vision: when a noise startles us we immediately turn to where it is. Sounds behind us or to the side act very differently. Set up a noise, like boiling a kettle, then turn your back on it and feel the hairs rise. It speaks to a primal need to be connected, sonically, to space in some way – the need of a hunter and a prey. And it seems to do us good to use those skills and to touch those feelings from time to time.

One last thing: a starling, stood in the gutter, squawking like a parakeet.

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