A Special Providence in the Fall of a Sparrow

October 7th, 2010 | Meera

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.

—Matthew 10:29-31, King James Bible

A hundred or so years ago, when I was seven or eight or nine and more foolish and more wise than yet I knew, I used to be dropped off at Sunday school while my parents attended the main service of our church. I hesitate to define exactly what I believed, or thought I believed at the time, about religion and the origin of the universe and the fate of all mankind. I can tell you that I asked an impertinent question now and again—usually regarding the ethics of this or that divine action—usually resulting in little satisfactory return except the swift corrugation of the Sunday school teacher’s forehead. Tiny doubts in my tiny head notwithstanding, I think it’s fair to say that for a long time I took the existence of God for granted. But rarely did this move me. God was vast, distant, and confusing. He didn’t have a lot to do with the particulars of my life.

It was different with this verse from Matthew, which I remember encountering and which (to an animal-obsessed child who stalked stray cats and scanned the ground under each tree for the injured bird I knew I would one day find) seemed infinitely comforting. A creator who would flood all his sinning children so he could start over from scratch was not for me; one who noted every fallen sparrow, on the other hand? That meant something in my world.

Today, I no longer believe in a celestial presence who counts my value in the currency of sparrows (incidentally, the onomatopoeic Hebrew word צפור/tsippur, normally translated as “sparrow” in this verse, can refer to any small chirruping bird). But I do believe in the fervent daily efforts of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors—who are out in force every single morning for much of the year looking out for creatures that are each still worth, in the minds of most, far less than a farthing.

Some days ago, a CBCM volunteer noted, carefully bagged, and brought to the Field Museum the lovely little Savannah sparrow I skinned today. (Most of the CBCM’s finds are window-kills, but this particular one came in with a broken neck that looked to me like the work of a cat.)

Because of that volunteer, a new specimen has been added to the scientific archives of the museum that could one day be of use in protecting the lives of other birds. And if the sparrow had been injured instead of dead when it was found, it would have been cared for.

Fear ye not therefore, birds of Chicago.


Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

—Hamlet Act 5 Scene 2

P.S. For a different kind of peek at a Savannah sparrow, visit my fellow volunteer Diana Sudyka’s painting and post at her exquisite blog, Tiny Aviary.

7 Responses to “A Special Providence in the Fall of a Sparrow”

  1. Megan says:

    Meera, have I told you before that I volunteered at Willowbrook? I’m sure I’ve told you stories, but I’m not sure if I named the place.

    • Meera says:

      I know, it’s kind of nutty. I don’t remember if you mentioned Willowbrook by name, but that’s awesome that you volunteered there. I would like more stories, please.

  2. Megan says:

    …while I believe in its mission, I think the main graphic (AWED BY NATURE!!!!) on their website is overstating things.

  3. I’ve seen several of these photos on your blog and always wonder about the pins. What are they for?

    • Meera says:

      They hold the birds in place so that the wings, feathers, head, and legs all dry in that position. When you pick up a study skin that’s finished drying, the wings don’t fall open and it’s nice and compact and easy to store parallel to other skins in a drawer.

  4. This sentence struck me: “I used to be dropped off at Sunday school while my parents attended the main service of our church.

    The way it works in most Christian churches (as far as I know, but there may be places in the world where it works differently) is that adults and children sit together in church for the first part of the service, and then at a specified point in the proceedings the children and sunday school teachers walk out together and go to the sunday school rooms round the back.

    Sounds like your church did things differently, in that sunday school was a place you could be “dropped off” at.

    The term “sunday school” is something of a misnomer, as is “teacher”, because the junior classes are mostly about craftwork and songs and the senior classes about open discussion in which the teacher doesn’t so much instruct as moderate. Neither is about lessons as such. (Again, I assume this is more or less universal, but perhaps there are places where it is not – it’s a big planet.)

    As for falling sparrows, I didn’t know that the Hebrew incorporates many types of birds, but I did know that “falling” doesn’t carry connotations of death as it might to an English reader – the sparrows are simply landing on the ground to fly away again later.

    • Meera says:

      I imagine individual churches run things very differently even within countries, let alone around the world. We had Sunday school classes that ran simultaneously with the adult services, and our teachers did have lesson plans, though they certainly weren’t as rigorous as they would be in an actual school. (But yes, there was a good deal of arts and crafts and singing as well. I think by the time I was old enough for “open discussion” I had cajoled my parents into letting me sit with them in the adult service, which I found less irritating to the spirit.)