I know – the picture’s of a blue tit, not a sparrow. But anyway…
When I was a child growing up in mid-Wales, roaming wild with my brothers and sisters around the village and countryside, one summer my younger sister and I found a baby sparrow – presumably fallen from its nest – and, knowing no better, picked it up and took it home.
At the time, home was a static caravan, a temporary solution while Dad was building the bungalow that was to become our home proper. We lived on the edge of the village, next to the petrol station that he’d bought in a fit of enthusiasm for Wales after a couple of summer holidays camping by the river in Llangurig. It was the place he loved, and lived until he died.
Cheep-a-cheep – for that was the ingenious name my 10-year-old brain came up with – was kept in the bedroom area of the caravan. This was two rooms, a tiny one at the end with two bunk beds, and a slightly larger one with a fold-down bed, which doubled as a playroom. The way I remember it, my brothers and my sister and I swapped rooms constantly – sometimes Tass and I were sharing the double bed, sometimes we swapped with Paul and Mart for the bunks.
Cheep-a-cheep lived surprisingly long for a ‘rescued’ baby bird.
Usually they keel over and die after a maximum of about two days, but he got so tame you could tempt him out from wherever he was hiding by rattling the lid of the old enamel bread tin – he knew it meant crumbs. Unfortunately we didn’t learn this until after the time he disappeared overnight, causing major panic.
Somebody’d left the caravan door open (it was summer, obviously) and the assumption was that the sparrow had made a bid for freedom. We searched the caravan high and low, me in tears of course, while my dad – who, now I think about it, must have been younger then than I am now – painstakingly (and probably painfully) searched the hedge outside the caravan door. No luck.
Eventually I was persuaded to give up the search and go to bed. Next morning, after what I’d like to think was a sleepless and heartbroken night, just as I mournfully uttered the words “I wonder where Cheep-a-Cheep is now” to my sister, he came hopping out from
under the bed with a perky ‘cheep!’.
From then on he had the run of the kids’ end of the caravan – we just kept a board across the doorway so he couldn’t get out. He did get supervised trips outside though. My dad gently explained to me how he would need to learn to fly, and one day go free, and I I loved that little bird with all my 10-year-old heart – so every day I would take him out into the garden, and repeatedly toss him into the air. He would flap his little wings like crazy before plummeting to the ground and landing with a gentle thump in a ball of fluff. When he wasn’t doing an impression of a shuttlecock he’d sit on my shoulder as I went about doing whatever other things pre-teen kids did in those days, before Nintendos, tablets and mobile phones.
Of course, I say ‘he’ – Cheep-a-cheep could just as easily have been a female. And, knowing what I do now, he must have been a fledgeling, or he certainly wouldn’t have survived on the breadcrumbs we were feeding him.
It was the school summer holidays, and soon it was time for me to make my annual visit to my Gran’s. I went and stayed with her every year. So I left Cheep-a-cheep and the freedom of the Welsh countryside, and headed to the suburbs of Basingstoke, to have my hair washed in water from the rain barrel in Granny’s backyard, to walk to the playpark where there were exciting luxuries such as swings and slides, to get Tuc crackers and hot milk every night for supper and boiled eggs for breakfast.
When the holiday was over, and Mum and Dad and all the family came to fetch me from Granny’s, the inevitable sad news had to be broken. Cheep-a-cheep had died. Heartbroken, I accepted my mum’s explanation that wild birds just aren’t meant to be kept in caravans and live on breadcrumbs. I could never quite understand my Gran’s dismissive “It was only a sparrow!” in the face of my grief, though.
Perhaps Cheep-a-cheep has got something to do with why, despite all the exotic birds I’ve seen – from watching huge gatherings (flock doesn’t sound quite right for this bird) of magnificent griffon vultures in Spain, to living cheek by jowl with white-tailed eagles in Canna and having rare warblers visit our garden in Shetland – I still get enormous delight from seeing ordinary, everyday birds coming to our feeder. And even though it’s always great to have a woodpecker or a nuthatch come visit, I don’t think I’ll ever stop being delighted by the blue tits, the chaffinches and, of course, the sparrows.