This time of year on the southern Canadian prairies you want all the life you can get. 16 hours out of every 24 are night-time, and though our daytime highs are cold at -5C/23F , that isn’t quite cold enough to freeze cloud and fog out of the air and give us our much-proclaimed blue winter skies. It’s dark. It’s grey. It’s December. And it’s going to be a long time until the first green leaf shows up.
So I’m feeding house sparrows. I didn’t set out to feed sparrows. I wanted to attract blue jays, backyard winter redpolls, rosy finches. If you feed them, they will come.
What came was sparrows.
Do you know how many different kinds of sparrows live in or visit Saskatchewan? Grasshopper, Baird’s, Le Conte’s, sharp-tailed, savannah. American tree, Brewer’s, Lincoln’s, swamp, clay-coloured, Vesper, song. White-throated, white-crowned, fox, Harris’, lark, golden-crowned. Towhees, juncos, longspurs, snow buntings.
Do you know what kind stays here year round? House sparrows. They aren’t even native. Brought to eastern North America in the 1850s, the species has since spread throughout the continent, coming into Saskatchewan in 1899. It can live anywhere people do, has an extremely large range and population and isn’t seriously threatened by human activities.
Which means that if I’m going to feed anything, house sparrows will be included. Their brown fluttering fills my back garden with movement and whirring. They eat like little horses. At first there were just a few. When I started, a couple of winters ago, it was terribly cold out. They needed to eat. I had a big bag of mixed seed that had been around for a couple of years and I filled feeders. And filled. And filled. The bird feeding websites I looked at said birds don’t like mixed seed. Um. The big bag ran out and I switched to whatever Val Marie’s Whitemud Grocery has in stock. “Oh my,” said the sparrows. Turns out house sparrows love that local stuff. Now I think they’re tweeting on Twitter. “Party at Laureen’s!” Everybody comes. They aren’t tidy feeders. They seem to throw away as much as they eat.
Here’s the wonder: Despite all the bird food and spillage, I like house sparrows. This time of year, when spring feels far away, they’re so alive. Fluttering. Cheeping. Bolting in panic at shadows. Little sparrow-ish fistfights, just to keep in practice for mating season. I can hear their choir practice right through tightly closed windows. They’re never going to be any good. But still they sing. Right through cold, wind, snow, freezing drizzle, all these short grey days.
* * *
This blog is a series of posts from one artist’s life in her community in one of Canada’s most beautiful and remote wilderness regions. To receive updates, with inspiring images and stories from the artist’s studio, plus a free printable postcard of one of my most recent paintings, just put your email in the box on the right. Your email address will never be shared.
Know someone who’d like to see this? Please pass it on!