Photo courtesy of https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/House_Sparrow/id
It was very calm in our yard this morning. Not like yesterday. Yesterday when I took the dogs out, there were dozens of birds out there chirping loudly and making an unholy racket in the Palo Verde and pecan trees. I assumed that our local Cooper’s hawk had caught another pigeon and was eating it on the roof again, and went back inside. A few minutes later, the dogs wanted to go out again, and amidst the avian din they went to the wooden fence and began whining and scratching. As I approached, I could hear a fluttering but could not see where it was coming from. I peeked over the gate, and saw a house sparrow frantically trying to free itself: it’s leg had slipped between the upright slats in the fence and it was trapped upside down. I ran to the door and called Steve to come out, and then gently held the bird while my husband figured out how to free it. I cupped it in my hand for a moment for it to catch its breath, then released it on the nearby brick wall. It quickly flew away, harbouring a slightly bloody leg but apparently none the worse for its harrowing experience.
In some of the Irish parts of Newfoundland it was customary to follow the ancient traditions of Wren Day on St. Stephen’s Day, known by most people today as Boxing Day. In Avondale, Conception Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, the boys would “visit each house in their community on St. Stephen’s Day, chanting [the lyrics to the song The Wren] while carrying an evergreen branch which was decorated with ribbons and feathers.”
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the firs,
Although he was little his honour was great,
Rise up, young ladies and give us a treat.
Up with the kettle and down with the pan
A penny or two to bury the wren.
With a pocket full o’money and a cellar full o’beer,
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Another version can be found here.
In the oldest forms of the Irish, Welsh, French, Spanish, Norse, and English tradition and well into the 20th century, an actual bird was hunted by wrenboys on St. Stephen’s Day. The captured wren was tied to the wrenboy leader’s staff or a net would be put on a pitchfork. It would be sometimes kept alive. There are many theories about where it started and why, but none that I will detail here.
Another avian tradition associated with St. Stephen’s Day was the Christmas Side Hunt, a yearly event where hunters would compete to see who could bring in the highest number of birds and small game. There was no expectation that any of these creatures would be eaten; it was purely for sport.
In 1900, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, who, along with many others, was concerned about declining bird populations, proposed a new holiday tradition, which has come to be known as the Christmas Bird Count. Instead of killing birds and counting them, volunteers survey designated areas for species and numbers. Today, tens of thousands of people participate across North America, and this citizen science is used to determine the health of bird populations and to inform conservation efforts for species at risk.
These are some of the things I was pondering as I helped free the house sparrow from my fence yesterday. And then I remembered an admonition from our church leaders to our primary children long ago, written in song:
I read at the priesthood meeting at the last conference the words to the verse of the song years ago, “Don’t Kill the Little Birds,” with which I was familiar when I was a child growing up in Arizona. I found many young boys around my age who, with their flippers and their slings, destroyed many birds.
In Primary and Sunday School we sang the song:
Don’t kill the little birds
That sing on bush and tree,
All thro’ the summer days,
Their sweetest melody.
As I was talking to the young men at that time all over the world, I felt that I should say something more along this line.
I suppose in every country in the world there are beautiful little birds with their beautiful plumage and their attractive songs.
I remember that my predecessor, President Joseph Fielding Smith, was a protector of these feathered and other wild life creatures.
While President Smith at one time was in the Wasatch Mountain Area, he befriended the creatures from the hill and forest. He composed four little verses as follows, and opposite each he drew a little picture. Of the mountain squirrel first, he wrote:
This is little Chopper Squirrel
Up in the mountains high.
He begs us for some grains of corn,
With thanks he says goodbye.
And then the bat was next:
This is little Tommy Bat
Who flies around at night.
He eats the bugs and ‘skeeters’ too,
Which is a thing quite right.
Then he came to the deer:
This is little Bambi Deer
Who comes to the cabin homes.
She licks the salt we feed to her,
And on the mountain roams.
And then the birds:
This, our little feathered friend
Who sings for us all day.
When comes the winter and the cold,
He wisely flies away.
Now, I also would like to add some of my feelings concerning the unnecessary shedding of blood and destruction of life. I think that every soul should be impressed by the sentiments that have been expressed here by the prophets.
And not less with reference to the killing of innocent birds is the wildlife of our country that live upon the vermin that are indeed enemies to the farmer and to mankind. It is not only wicked to destroy them, it is a shame, in my opinion. I think that this principle should extend not only to the bird life but to the life of all animals. For that purpose I read the scripture where the Lord gave us all the animals. Seemingly, he thought it was important that all these animals be on the earth for our use and encouragement.
President Joseph F. Smith said, “When I visited, a few years ago, the Yellowstone National Park, and saw in the streams and the beautiful lakes, birds swimming quite fearless of man, allowing passers-by to approach them as closely almost as tame birds, and apprehending no fear of them, and when I saw droves of beautiful deer [feeding] along the side of the road, as fearless of the presence of men as any domestic animal, it filled my heart with a degree of peace and joy that seemed to be almost a foretaste of that period hoped for when there shall be none to hurt and none to molest in all the land, especially among all the inhabitants of Zion. These same birds, if they were to visit other regions, inhabited by man, would, on account of their tameness, doubtless become more easily a prey to the gunner. The same may be said of those beautiful creatures—the deer and the antelope. If they should wander out of the park, beyond the protection that is established there for these animals, they would become, of course, an easy prey to those who were seeking their lives. I never could see why a man should be imbued with a blood-thirsty desire to kill and destroy animal life. I have known men—and they still exist among us—who enjoy what is, to them, the ‘sport’ of hunting birds and slaying them by the hundreds, and who will come in after a day’s sport, boasting of how many harmless birds they have had the skill to slaughter, and day after day, during the season when it is lawful for men to hunt and kill (the birds having had a season of protection and not apprehending danger) go out by scores or hundreds, and you may hear their guns early in the morning on the day of the opening, as if great armies had met in battle; and the terrible work of slaughtering the innocent birds goes on.
“I do not believe any man should kill animals or birds unless he needs them for food, and then he should not kill innocent little birds that are not intended for food for man. I think it is wicked for men to thirst in their souls to kill almost everything which possesses animal life. It is wrong, and I have been surprised at prominent men whom I have seen whose very souls seemed to be athirst for the shedding of animal blood.” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1939, pp. 265–66.)
One of the poets stated in this connection:
Take not away the life you cannot give,
For all things have an equal right to live.
—and I might add there also, because God gave it to them, and they were to be used only, as I understand, for food and to supply the needs of men.
Let us be mindful, every day, of the small and simple ways we can show thanks and gratitude to our Heavenly Father for the countless ways He has beautified our world. One little bird may not seem like much, but as another children’s song tells us, His love for us is indicated by His love for even the smallest bird.
1. God sees the little sparrow fall,
it meets his tender view;
if God so loves the little birds,
I know he loves me too.
He loves me too, he loves me too,
I know loves me too;
because he loves the little things,
I know loves me too.
2. He paints the lily of the field,
perfumes each lily bell;
if he so loves the little flow’rs,
I know he loves me well. [Refrain]
3. God made the little birds and flow’rs,
and all things large and small;
he’ll not forget his little ones,
I know he loves them all. [Refrain]