The sparrows fall to pieces

— Eastmoor, Norfolk, March 2012

It’s evening, the light is fading to a greyish hue, the robin slips out its fragile song in the dead bay tree by the window. My cabin backs out onto a field of couch grass and sprouts which I face away from when I sit at the desk in the evening, all that goes on in the field and woodland behind me feels as if it were in the back of my mind. I know there is killing and fornicating going on out there. In the wood beyond the field a male tawny owl calls once, following up with its second, longer ‘twoo-ooh-ooh’. The ghostly call has the appeal of a siren, but this is a male marking his territory. The blackbird signals the shift to night with its ritualistic roll of ‘tchacking’ alarm calls and the day is most certainly at an end. That is by no means it for the noise. The ceiling is home to a colony of house sparrows roosting in the rafters. We are separated by slabs of insulation material which is of such texture that the slightest movement from one of the birds is clear to me.

They take hours to settle, tucked-in long before the blackbird or robin has gone to its roost, they tremble and bicker over space well into darkness. At around midnight I hear them scratching about, their feathers purring against the insulation. My host apologised to me about them: ‘they’re supposed to be endangered,’ she said, with a grimace. The house is a new-build and was immediately taken-to by house martins arriving in the spring but the house sparrows didn’t like that and have waited up there for them every year since. The family favours the martins but the sparrows outnumber them greatly. There is still the contempt for animals brought about by familiarity. This is how it has been for centuries, and in the main, is a harmless effect of living in a place where wildlife thrives.

It’s late now, the goose has gone to bed and ended its insufferable honking shriek. From the road beyond the house the deep bass of a motor comes, getting closer and closer. It’s a quad bike, the engine purring past the side of the house and into the field directly behind the cabin. I can hear the faint sound of the ducks quacking in their huts in anticipation, the sparrows are nervous, moving around above, perhaps huddling for protection. But from what? The lights of the bike are in the window, shifting, becoming longer and brighter as it approaches, the speed and resonance increasing. The sparrows fidget more and more, growing in anxiety. And then it comes: a spine crunching gunshot. I feel it in my back and shoulders, the sparrows fall to pieces in the rafters. The engine dissolves, and now is gone.


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