Consider the sparrow

  • "These birds aren't here because they have chased away everything else; they are here because we have chased away everything else, because there are so few other species capable of living on little besides concrete and car exhaust and bread crumbs."

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The Urban Bestiary
Lyanda Lynn Haupt
337 pages, hardcover:
$27.
Little Brown, 2013.

Most communities across the West, urban and rural, are home to the animals in Lyanda Lynn Haupt's new book, The Urban Bestiary, a collection of joyful meditations on the fauna that scamper over our lawns and roost on our power poles. While eastern gray squirrels, crows and the other denizens of Haupt's bestiary make up the most accessible of the local wildlife, Haupt worries that their very familiarity renders them somehow "unwild" to us and therefore not worth our notice. We imagine wildlife as, say, a moose wading in some distant boreal swamp, but consider nearby and more common animals like raccoons and starlings as much less important, reducing them "to fluffy cuteness or mere annoyance."

That simplification, Haupt argues, robs us of a better understanding of the world and our influence on it. "I come to this understanding by exploring wilderness with a pack on my back and with my ear to the wind, yes, but also by observing a migratory warbler in my backyard and by joining my daughter in watching a nonnative house sparrow gather nest material in the backyard garden, while allowing myself to recognize fully that these activities are all of a piece."

Haupt, as a good naturalist, loves all things fauna, but she's gracious about those who don't and even finds some humor in their uncharitable views of many urban animals, often the result of ignorance or of unnerving interactions with an animal trapped in a kitchen, garage or garbage can. She refuses to scold, even when confronting urbanites' outsized fear of coyotes, a solitary and collie-sized predator. "Most adults cannot accurately identify the song of an American robin," she writes. "Why on earth would we know what to think of a coyote?"

Haupt's big-hearted approach especially benefits those animals even nature lovers tend to hate: introduced species. In a chapter on what she calls the "nonnative triumvirate," Haupt mounts an impassioned defense of sparrows, starlings and pigeons. "These birds aren't here because they have chased away everything else; they are here because we have chased away everything else, because there are so few other species capable of living on little besides concrete and car exhaust and bread crumbs."

There's something heartening about the animals that do more than survive despite us; they actually manage to thrive alongside us. In doing so, they remind us of how fuzzy the divide between urban and wild really is.

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