Feeding sparrows on Holy Island:
an ethical dilemma
by Paul Evans
Sparrows had gathered in a coffee house courtyard on a late summer afternoon on Holy Island. Most of the tourists were chasing the ebb tide across the causeway as the North Sea wiped and revealed a sacred history every few hours. With the tide out, the island’s holy precincts endured their heritage quietly, with a few stragglers and the birds.
Furtive and mouse-like, the sparrows scuttled under tables, the lookouts venturing on to chair backs to scope out possibilities. They have an acute instinct for a good mark, and I had a sparrow-friendly vibe and a sandwich.
I’ve always thought habituating wild animals through food is ethically dubious; wild means distance, other. However, the writer Ryszard Kapuściński said something about contact between self and other being the basis for harmony on Earth. So I offered the sparrows a crust and all hell broke loose.
I’d had this internal ethical argument the day before, at Eyemouth, in Berwickshire, the Scottish Borders. On the harbour a man selling fresh seafood offered the chance to feed seals by clamping a herring with a crocodile clip dangling from a pole above a float in the dock.
I lost that argument too. A massive grey seal with a daft dog’s head and propeller scars on his van-sized body rose from the water to snatch the bait. I was so impressed with this 14-year-old giant harbour master I fed him a fish by hand, and even though he must have done it a thousand times before he was surprisingly gentle. I’m sure there are all kinds of things wrong with doing this but I just found the contact inspiring and real.
The sparrows went bonkers. I’ve always felt Passer domesticus was a kind of popular movement from the past, a peasants’ revolt with its own social structure and communal enthusiasm. The action across the table around the crust in my fingers was more like a dancefloor than politics, with dominant birds and watching wallflowers. Most of all, it was fun – for them and for me too.
First published in The Guardian Country Diary on the 7 September 2016
Photographs by Maria Nunzia @Varvera