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Michael McCarthy: When is a sparrow not a sparrow?

Nature Notebook

Was Lesbia's sparrow really a sparrow? I know it doesn't do to be too highbrow these days, but I am emboldened to pursue the question because The Independent has been The Sparrow's Friend ever since we launched our campaign eight years ago to save the poor mite from its startling decline. The house sparrow, Passer domesticus, has all but vanished from London and other urban centres where formerly it was ubiquitous and to this day no one knows why.

This week, browsing through an advance copy of a stylish new history of ornithology, The Wisdom of Birds, by Tim Birkhead, I came across an intriguing reference to the most famous sparrow of all, the one that belonged as a pet to Lesbia, lover of the greatest of all the Latin poets, Catullus. Lesbia's sparrow died, and Lesbia was heartbroken, and Catullus wrote a mock elegy for it which turned into one of his most moving and charming poems.

Now Professor Birkhead (he's at Sheffield University), in a splendid old-fashioned academic footnote, ventures the possibility that the bird may not have been a sparrow at all, but a bullfinch, pictured above. He bases his theory on the fact that hand-reared bullfinches show more devotion to their human owners than any other bird, and also on the word Catullus uses to describe its voice – "pipiabat". Classicists will recognise at once that this is the third-person singular of the imperfect tense of the verb "pipiare", which may mean "to cheep" – in which case the bird probably was a sparrow after all – but may also mean "to pipe", in which case it was possibly a bullfinch, as only a bullfinch "pipes".

Just to muddy the waters further, I would add myself that if it was a sparrow, Lesbia's bird may not have been a house sparrow, but possibly a tree sparrow, Passer montanus, or even a Spanish sparrow, Passer hispaniolensis, which breeds in southern Italy. That's the stuff, eh? Beats discussing whether Chelsea are going to edge it over United this season. The Wisdom of Birds is out in October.

Unclaimed riches

Still on the sparrow, readers may have forgotten that in 2000 we offered a £5,000 prize for anyone who could explain its disappearance, which has never been claimed. That's partly because the conditions were stringent, and the letters saying "It's magpies. Send money to address below" didn't cut it. A reminder then: the prize still stands, but it is only for a peer-reviewed paper published in a scientific journal which, in the opinion of our referees, accounts for the house sparrow's decline in urban areas; the referees being the RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology, and Dr Denis Summers-Smith, the world sparrow expert.