A fragment of an old poem to start off with:
Under the apple treee, a prattle
of tabby-feathered sparrows anticipates
the flick and snap of chequered tablecloth
that signals their breadcrumb breakfast.
I was reminded of the image because I had a newspaper clipping sent to me the other day – yes, there are still people who read printed newspapers, albethey freebies, and who cut out things other than coupons to send on accompanied by real letters to specific people, rather than glancing superficially at on-line phrases and sending irrelevant links to everyone in their email address book. It was a cutting about the Spanish sparrow who is causing a furore in a coastal village in Hampsire.
We see sparrows here, of course, but I’ve never really looked closely to see which they are: as far as I am concerned they are simply gorriones. (I’m not sure quite why, but I always connect gorrión and gorrón. The first a sparrow, the second, according to the RAE an adjective meaning Que tiene por hábito comer, vivir, regalarse o divertirse a costa ajena – in other words, someone who blags their way through life. Which in turn reminds me of Norman MacCaig’s poem Sparrow, where the “dowdy” bird “carries what learning he has / lightly – it is, in fact, based only / on the usefulness whose result / is survival.”)
Actually, most of the birds I see in the garden here are the tiny green warblers from the first page of the bird book and they dodge about on the vine and all look too similar to name precisely. When I get close enough to actually inspect plumage, it’s normally a mangled mess of feathers and innards that the cats have abandoned.
I think I was born with a bird book in one hand – and one for identifying wildflowers in the other – and it can be frustrating to live in a country where you don’t automatically know the name of the birds that visit outside your window. I will occasionally ask one of the neighbours to identify plants and birds for me, but it only makes them look at me even more oddly. (At least I’m not like Ramón J Sender‘s Nancy and don’t go round asking them for the imperfecto del subjuntivo or other verb moods and tenses. Then they’d look at me really oddly.)
The previous owner told us he used to put poison down for the cats as he loved the birds. He raved so much about one particular songster, making it sound quite exotic, that it was a while before I realised he was talking about the blackbird.
I first learned the Spanish name for that bird in the Jardín Botánico de Madrid, on a walk with an ex-student. “Look!” he said, pointing. And I looked and saw a perfectly ordinary blackbird. “¡Mirlo!” he said, and I heard “¡Míralo!”. When I eventually realised the confusion, I think I had a far better idea of how kangaroos ended up being called by the aboriginal word for “I don’t understand you.”
This morning I saw a lapwing in the next door field and have looked it up to find out what it’s called in Spanish. It’s an avefría. Given the bitter wind that’s been blowing for the last few days, that doesn’t really surprise me. If it stays around till summer comes, will it be an ‘avecaliente’?
And a short piece of ‘catterel’ to end with, written some time last century, I think:
There’s a cat in the back garden, under the hydrangea.
In the bush above it, sits a bird who is a stranger
to the neighbourhood and clearly is oblivious to the danger.
Who will come and rescue him? Let’s call for the Lone Ranger!