Lessons Learned from the Front Porch

Do you know the chipping sparrow? The chipping sparrow is a generally unremarkable bird, identifiable by its rufous (reddish brown) cap and ‘trilling’ song.

Sitting on the old stoop of my house, I have a commanding view of my garden. I often sit on the stoop to take lunch breaks and relax after work. The other day I watched as a chipping sparrow landed on the lower leaf stem of a cabbage plant, poking his head well into the heart of the plant and bringing out in his beak a cabbage worm. He flitted to every cabbage plant in the row, in sequence, and then doubled back. Have you ever seen this behavior?

19th century ornithologist Edward Forbush may have. His Birds of New England description of this sparrow is often quoted. The chipping sparrow is, “the little brown-capped pensioner of the dooryard and lawn, that comes about farmhouse doors to clean crumbs shaken from the tablecloth by thrifty housewives.”

What do the chipping sparrow’s innate actions mean to me? As in, what value do I extract from it? Well, thanks to the sparrow, I am more likely to grow successful and attractive heads of cabbage. The cabbage is both personal sustenance (food?) and savings in cost, meaning my hard-earned wages can go toward other needs.

The chipping sparrow saved me the expense of research into pest control options, purchase of pest control, and eventual application and exposure to any associated risks. If the sparrow has been pooping in the cabbage neighborhood, he may have even added some nutrients back into the soil, thereby stimulating the microbial growth which allows my plants to take up even more soil nutrients. Also derived from the sparrow’s generous act is the peace and relaxation I felt observing the grace of this bird, its nimbleness and thoroughness.

There is a concept which describes the benefits we derive from nature: Ecosystem Services. The concept encompasses an infinite range of benefits to us, including among other things, natural filtration of drinking water, the pollination of crops, the recycling of waste, and the inspiring of arts and culture, as well as high-tech biomimetic designs. Farmers have the potential to facilitate the ‘harvest’ of many Ecosystem Services. In addition to food, farms can ‘produce’ healthy soil, ‘produce’ clean and sequestered ground water, and even ‘produce’ clean air.

As new Rural Opportunities and Stewardship Program staff, Ecosystem Services is just one of the many interesting aspects of ecosystems and biodiversity about which I look forward to talking with you in the future.