The Sparrows

By Shane H. King


     To commune with wildlife after 27 years in steel and concrete feels a little miraculous. You’ll see the apparition of a bird flying by the window, sometimes perched on a ledge in a maximum security prison, but watching sparrows hop around after bits of bread at your feet is very different. Looking up at you, head cocked; a prayer in tiny translucent brown eyes reaching your affections. Looking into the eyes of creatures that see a world you can’t imagine. Eyes without condemnation.

      When I got to Fox Lake; a medium security prison, where I could spend more time outside, I saw people throwing broken pieces of bread to these tiny birds the color of tree bark and grey sky. House Sparrows I learned after searching illustrations in the prison library’s ancient bird books. I was smuggling bread out of the chow hall that same day;  an adventure in and of itself;  I was recently called out by an oddly small and haughty voice just after I’d stuffed a bag of bread down the front of my pants. (Where no guard is inclined to search.)

“Are you planning on leaving the chow hall with that bread?”        

   As I turned and stood I nearly stepped on a small dark-haired twenty-something whose expression would lead you to think she’d gotten the drop on an armored car robbery.               

“Well yeah,” I smiled, “I’m about to do just that?”              

“You can’t take bread of the chow hall.”                              

“Sure I can, I do it all the time.”  (She meant it’s not allowed;  My English teacher would be so proud of me for passing on her grammatical tutelage.) That day the sparrows had some peanuts and crackers I’d bought from canteen instead.       

      As I fed them I picked up on mannerisms and some bits of language in the various chirps and whistles; A descending tone at the sight of food, an excited squeak as they’d make off with dinner in their beaks; a chattering hello. Just for fun I began to imitate the first with a crude whistle when I’d toss a peanut, an apparent favorite, and stumbled on a rudimentary language the sparrows and I both seemed to understand. It fast became their dinner bell. They’d come swooping in 10 or 20 strong sometimes.

    They seemed to know my face as well, unexpectedly landing at my feet no matter where I was with pleading eyes, dinner bell or no. I began carrying a small bag of peanuts in anticipation. People started calling me “Bird Man.” (To be fair the original Bird Man was far more learned about these adorable avians than I. But then no one ever hassled him about bread. They even let him have an aviary. )           

    The sparrows on the hill usually meet me at the “Health Services,” building  on my twice daily medication excursions. A few weeks ago I emerged to find a particular guard, Wiley, with the rather curious idea that the tax payers would find a war against showing kindness to animals a splendid use of their hard earned dollars. (Right up there with  bread smugglers.)  I’d pled guilty to “showing kindness to God’s creatures,” (My words not his), when he “finally caught [me],”  a couple years ago.

    This day he’d parked his Caravan outside awaiting my departure.  I whistled, before I saw him, as I walked out into daylight and was quickly greeted by the familiar whoosh of wings which always makes me chuckle. Who doesn’t like being appreciated?          

    Wiley rolled his window down, “Mr. King,” condescending as usual, “Do I have to tell you again not to feed the birds?”                      

   “No,”  I said, “I’m sure you have a choice in that regard.”          

     He raised his eyebrows, rolled up his window and remained, ostensibly to ensure no birds would be treated to a peanut on his watch.  My heart hurt for the sparrows as they hopped along on the grass beside me with expectant eyes. When they’d fall behind with the hopping they’d flutter up ahead a few at a time like children playing leap frog.      

    When I was far enough down the block-long colonnade overhanging the walk, the columns screened Wiley’s view enough for me to risk dropping some peanuts behind me. The sparrows would break ranks a handful at a time and snatch them off the sidewalk to dine al fresco or fly off to enjoy their a meal in peace. Wiley pulled his Caravan ahead as I turned left to go down the hill but the sparrows had had their fill by then.     

    I always try to make sure I have food for all of them. The thought of disappointing one of them aches. And I noticed they’d changed the way they treated one another since I’d been feeding them regularly. At first they’d race for the peanut scolding and chasing one another trying get their food. But as time went by and they apparently learned I was going to make sure they were all fed, they’d simply turn their eyes back toward me and wait for the me to toss the next peanut. I never intended it to be  an experiment in economic injustice but it seems to have made a point. I guess in some ways sparrows and people are not so different.      

     The seagulls which come by the hundreds from July to October pose another challenge for the sparrows and I; they eat everything. Feeding sparrows with seagulls trying to steal their food is an art. Keeping myself between the seagulls and the sparrows, each with their own steps is a dance I’ve yet to master. The seagulls always manage to cut in.    

     But one little male sparrow learned how to get around this problem. I saw him pirouette right out from behind such a seagull in a way that reminded me of a wide receiver trying to shake a defender. He planted himself ready to spring ~ his eyes locked on mine pregnant with his intentions.     

    The seagull wattled right, pursing my gaze perhaps.  

    The sparrow spun back out to the left.  

    I homed in on a spot about four feet beyond him and launched the peanut as the sparrow bounded after.  

    I wish I could say that a sparrow racing after a peanut was a graceful sight but it’s something more akin to a running face plant which landed a mere tick after the peanut. He was ten feet in the air with supper in his beak before the seagull even realized he had a rival.   

   As I watch him flying off I found myself laughing with amazement at what had just happened. A sparrow had hatched a plan, found a way to tell me and we pulled it off together. The sparrow and the birdbrain. A moment I’ll always cherish.