Sparrows warning over fire threat

WE return to Ireland to find the weather as sunny as that which we enjoyed on the Mediterranean during our recent visit.

I noticed that the Lanzarote-suntan sported by one of my poker-playing pals, an Irish-American lawyer and long-time west Cork resident, had barely faded during our 12-day absence. He explained that he had been out of doors, painting his garden shed.

It has been a lovely April so far, although evenings can be chilly. Yesterday I saw smoke from some of the village chimneys curling skyward against yet another magnificent sunset. But, I’ve seen the same phenomenon on warm August evenings. I could only guess the fires were lit for sentimentality rather than for the heat provided, with families from overseas visiting and the old tradition of gathering around the hearth once more enjoyed.

I heard a cautionary tale in which a pair of nesting sparrows almost burnt down a house priced at the best part of €1 million during the boom. Unfortunately for the builder, it remained unsold, but he must still pay insurance on it. In the event, little damage was done. A neighbour, out for a breath of air, saw the flare of flames under the soffits of one of the estate’s empty houses, but the woman’s husband doused it with a garden hose.

Ironically, developers must continue to pay the insurance premiums on their unsold ‘dream homes’, even as they see values plummet. While ‘fire-sale’ was not the word in this case, it seems that if it’s not the bankers burning their assets, it’s the birds.

The culprit, house sparrows, had built a nest under a security light and, apparently, the heat of the light ignited the dry straw or feathers in their cosy home.

House sparrows have always lived alongside mankind. Members of the weaver-bird family, this sparrow species followed man out of Africa and built in the roofs of the rude huts he raised as he spread slowly but inexorably around the globe. There are house sparrows in Eurasia, India, Japan and China, North and South America, Hawaii and many Pacific islands, in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, although in some cases they may have been introduced by immigrants.

In the United States, large-scale introductions were predicated on the proposition that sparrows would control insects that attacked crops. However, the pest-controllers sometimes became pests themselves, eating the cereals and fruit they were supposed to protect, while aggressively colonising the nesting sites of indigenous species which declined. In urban situations, their nests sometimes blocked drains and caused electrical fires, as reported above. However, for all that they sometimes become pests, the lesson of sparrows in China must not be forgotten. From 1958 to 1962, as part of “The Great Leap Forward”, China initiated a project to eliminate all pests, including mosquitoes, rats and sparrows. Sparrow depredations on cereal crops was serious enough to reduce national agricultural output. Farmers and peasants were enjoined to prevent the birds from perching by shouting and banging pots to scare them away.

This worked; the sparrows, harassed wherever they attempted to land, died from exhaustion. The following year, China’s harvest greatly increased because of the birds’ extermination. However, it had been forgotten that the sparrows also ate locusts. With no predator to reduce their numbers, a year afterwards huge clouds of locusts scoured the land, causing a famine in which an estimated 30 million people died.

Since arriving home, I am told that four woodchat shrikes, beautiful small birds of prey native to the Mediterranean, have recently been recorded here.

I saw three individuals in Ibiza a fortnight ago. We have no breeding shrikes in Ireland, unlike Britain, where the red-backed shrike, a summer migrant, breeds in small numbers.

They are known as ‘butcher-birds’ for their habit of carrying their prey — beetles, bees, small frogs and worms— to thorn trees and hanging them there, as a sort of larder. Meanwhile, our adopted heron puts on more plumage daily but not yet flight feathers. We got some live fish from the trawler men and presented them in a bucket of sea water, but it is too young yet to respond.

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