The usual (and some unusual) suspects

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Male House Sparrow splashing in birdbath

On my little property, sandwiched among other modest properties in my suburban Ventura neighborhood, I’ve built a lush green paradise with inviting plants and watering holes where birds eagerly flock. By far the most ubiquitous species to frequent my garden is the common house sparrow. You know, that gregarious songbird with brown, black, and gray markings who gathers in large, social groups, chattering the day away. The house sparrow was originally brought over from Europe in 1851 – when eight pairs were released in Brooklyn, New York – to purposely establish wildlife that was familiar to European immigrants. Fast forward 150+ years and this innocent little songbird is often considered a pest in urban and suburban areas due to its propensity for throwing large parties and making a racket, as well as scaring away native birds.

Personally, I find their songs and chatter charming, and have grown accustomed to hearing them augment the soundscape, especially amongst the clamor of less appealing urban noises. Sometimes a couple dozen exuberant house sparrows, like a well-rehearsed Broadway cast, serenade me from their roosting zone on the colorful bougainvillea outside my kitchen’s picture window. I particularly relish the sight of them wiggling and squirming, as they dry off upon returning from the birdbath in my front yard. Even more enjoyable is directly spying on them bouncing, gyrating, splashing and having a jolly good time in the birdbath.

During last weekend’s election festivities, as I sat on my couch anxiously awaiting the president-elect’s victory speech, I found comfort in watching the sparrows and the occasional finch splash about in the birdbath outside my living room window. It seemed as though they were participating in their own ritual of jubilation that mirrored the expressions of relief, excitement, and unyielding joy that were happening across the country. My attention bounced repeatedly from birdbath to TV and back again, savoring every moment of excitement. At one point, when my eyes darted back to the birdbath, I half-noticed a larger, gray and brown mottled bird with its back towards me drinking from the structure. “How curious,” I thought to myself. I had never seen a pigeon perched upon the birdbath before. And such a large pigeon, too!

As I started to look away my brain suddenly connected the dots, and I recast my gaze upon the pigeon, which was not a pigeon at all, but rather…a hawk! I reached for my iPhone – the only camera I had handy – and snapped a few bland images through the thick window glass before the hawk flew off. However, something told me she’d be back, so I raced for my DSLR camera in another room. As I re-entered the living room, the hawk was just on her return descent to the birdbath. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was going to have front and center stage to photograph her up close!

Closeup Sharp-shinned Hawk

But wait! What was she carrying in her feet? My spirits were immediately crushed. As has been the case in the last several weeks, Mother Nature was, once again, showing me how balance works in her world. The hawk had evidently made a mad dash to the bougainvillea to snatch a sparrow who was likely en route to the birdbath. I wanted to drop my camera and look away, but like a journalist in the midst of a war, my motivation to photograph the event was overwhelming. Documenting this moment in time suddenly became my central purpose in life. As I snapped into action, the sadness was replaced with anticipation and curiosity. Who was this cunning raptor, with the piercing gold eyes, in my birdbath?

Based on the creature’s coloration, I was able to identify it as a juvenile sharp-shinned hawk (AKA “sharpie”) – the smallest hawk in North America. It was likely a female, which are 30% larger than males of the species and can grow as large as crows. While one might think they get their names from razor-like appendages, the label “sharp-shinned” is used simply to describe their long, slender, un-feathered lower legs. That said, those innocent-looking legs are connected to feet that are in turn connected to talons which are, indeed, deadly weapons. Sharpies are pursuit hunters who ambush their prey by bursting out suddenly from a camouflaged location at close range. They use their powerful feet to crush their prey, inflicting a mortal wound with their talons. My hope is that the kill is so swift and surprising that the victim doesn’t suffer much. I’m also encouraged that even though sparrows are monogamous and mate for life, they will often replace a lost mate during the breeding season. I just couldn’t bear to think of the victim’s mate, devastated and alone.

As I photographed the event, I only half-watched the sharpie pluck the sparrow’s feathers, and begin to consume meat. Even now, as I look at the photos, I’ve managed to distance myself emotionally from the carnage and consider the food chain. And while the sharpie has the physical advantage over songbirds, larger hawks and other raptors have a leg up on the sharpie. In fact, the average life span of a sharp-shinned hawk is a brief three years, even though biologically they could live upwards of a decade. This matches the average lifespan of the house sparrow. So both animals seem to get an equal chance in life. Knowing this helped me process the situation a bit easier, even though I was still reeling from the shock of it all.

Sharp-shinned hawk with prey

The next day, except for the occasional chirp, it was oddly quiet at the bougainvillea and birdbath. The day after that, it was a little less quiet, as some sparrows began to regain their confidence. And by the third day, the cacophony had returned. The sparrows sprung to life again, dancing on the branches and traveling back and forth to the birdbath to replenish their thirst and indulge in their bathing rituals. All this, as if nothing had happened. So it goes, the cycle of life – always there to remind us that we’re mortal. And if we learn anything, I hope it’s to live every day with unbridled passion, love our family and friends to the fullest, and experience the world completely in all its beauty and sadness. Just like the sparrows.

Female house sparrow splashing around in birdbath.