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Life of a Berlin sparrow

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It all begins, if we ignore the chicken and egg conundrum, with 12 days deep in a nest tucked under the eaves of an old Berlin factory and made from natural offerings such as twigs, straw, leaves or grass.

Twelve days in which the body of a young bird barely has time to form beneath the warmth of both its mother and father before it begins pecking its way through the pale, speckled shell that has kept it safe from the world it is so eager to become a part of.

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But for the first ten days, the House Sparrow hatchling is totally dependent on its parents, who shelter it and take turns to feed it and its four siblings at exhausting intervals of between 15 and 20 minutes. From sunrise to sunset.

As an omnivorous species, the little hatchling with the comically over-sized beak eats both insects and plants, but during these early days of existence, it needs a good dose of protein to ensure rapid growth.

That being so, its initial diet is heavier on critters such as ants, spiders and beetles than on the seeds and berries it will come to love in later life.

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Born covered naked, within just ten days of piercing its fragile shell, the hatchling has managed to grow some feathers and officially develop its fledgling wings. Though they are not enough to secure the young bird's safe passage through the skies, they are the start, it senses, of untold opportunity.

Two weeks into its stay on this planet, it decides the time has come to venture into the big blue beyond. Up becomes down, and the young bird lands on the pavement with a bump. Dazed, it scuttles to a nearby patch of grass, where it hopes to dodge hungry predators, the most widespread of which is the domestic cat, and to keep exercising its wings in safety.

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In the days after falling to earth, while the young sparrow practises its flight and foraging skills, the devoted parents - often the father because the mother is busy feathering the nest for the next batch of chicks - come down to the ground to ensure it gets the sustenance it needs.

It might sound like the ultimate in parent-child bonding, but within two weeks, the devotion will come to an end and the little bird will be left to fend for itself. A challenge to which it will soar.

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Upwardly mobile at the tender age of four weeks, the child bird leaves the factory grounds to join a large flock of sparrows of a similar age in a nearby park.

And thus begins independent life, which if the sparrow manages to outwit the the claws of cats and talons of owls, could go on for up to ten years. More realistic, however, is between four and five years.

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The sparrow quickly adapts to the ways of the world. Both avian and human. Though at first glance the giants that are Homo sapiens to its Passer domesticus are intimidating, the bird quickly comes to realise they are what feeds it.

Born, in keeping with the ways of its species, in the warmer months when café-goers sit outside to eat, food is available in abundance. All the bird has to do is to find a place to perch and wait for the crumbs to fall.

Or if the waiting becomes too long, hop up onto the table and take whatever is easiest to grab. This, it soon learns, is met with varied receptions. Some humans coo over the "cheeky little thing," while others curse and throw things at it.

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The Berlin sparrow grapevine vibrates with the not so chirpy tales of the fate that meets the species in other, less tolerant places than Berlin. In the US, it hears, its kin are deemed by many to be a noisy pest guilty of chasing away native bird species. The punishment is anything from deterrents to death.

Such stories make the little bird shudder, as do those from China, where hatred of its feathered 15cm frame runs as old as it does deep. In some parts of Asia he learns, he may even be slaughtered and finish his life grilled on a stick. 

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There once was a lucky young sparrow
Who got uncomfortably close to an arrow
To cries of "I got him"
The tip grazed his bottom
His fate was an escape oh-so-narrow

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It is glad then, that it does not have to migrate like many of the other birds it meets on its travels through the Berlin skies. In fact, it doesn't venture much further than the area where it first felt the ground beneath its bony feet. Occassionally, it sees its parents, and unbeknownst to it, the 20 siblings born to them each year.

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Though it does not know its extended family, the sparrow's instincts tell it the time will soon come to add to it. Failure to do so could push its name into a more threatened category on what it has heard described as the extinction or Red List.

Though right now, it is categorized as a "least concern" species, globally numbers are in decline. In part because new or gentrified buildings offer fewer nesting opportunities, and in part due to lack of insects resulting from increased pesticide use. But in Berlin, there are plenty of girls to choose from. And he has his eye on a beauty.

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His attention is diverted away from girls by the first snow of the season, and indeed of the sparrow's life. The white flakes that claim a place in the sky it has previously only seen occupied by birds and planes, fascinate it. Snow, it deems, is fun.

The only problem is finding food now the café owners have taken their tables and therefore the goodwill of their customers inside. Even the crumbs people throw on the streets get covered in the cold white powder that falls from above. But the determined bird finds what it can and eats what it finds. 

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And before long the snow has bowed to the force of spring, and the sparrow knows it is time to grow up and settle down. He finds a spot for a new home, not far from his factory beginnings, and starts to sing his songs of seduction.

Though it is hard to be heard over the big city din and indeed his male competitors, he chirps with abandon in the hope of attracting the girl of his dreams.

He is in luck. She hears. She comes. And together, they begin the process of building a nest, and in so doing, commit to one another. Until death do them part. 

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Brought to you by Global Ideas

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And more about the IUCN Red List 

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