House sparrows, like pigeons have a bad reputation. They are often reviled because there are so many of them around human habitations. Like pigeons, they are synanthropic, meaning that they do well when living in close proximity with humans. If you build a city, they will come. Native to Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia, they are an invasive species in the Americas. 100 were released in Brooklyn in the 19th Century and they spread almost immediately to most temperate habitats in North America.
We’ve written before about what Chairman Mao thought of them.
They will drive you nuts if you live in bluebird habitat.They drive bluebirds out of their nests with regularity and, so far, no one has devised a bluebird house that is also sparrow proof, although we will test a new design this Spring as soon as the bluebirds return. The sparrows never leave.
Their reputation today is not as bad as it was in the days of St. Dominic. Saint Dominic, you will remember, was the founder of the Dominican Order in 1217. He preached and lived in voluntary poverty, his followers exhorted to live and behave with charity and humility. Rumors about his involvement as an inquisitor in the first medieval Inquisition have never been established. And even if he was one, he died in 1221, thirty years before Pope Innocent IV got around to authorizing torture in 1252. (In his defense, Pope Innocent did not allow torture methods which resulted in bloodshed, mutilation or death.)
St. Dominic didn’t trust sparrows.
Readers with a faint heart will want to skip the next paragraph. St. Dominic may not have tortured humans but sparrows were a different story.
According to the blessed Cecilia, who knew him personally and preserved her memories of him when she was in her nineties, St. Dominic once was preaching to the sisters — from behind a grille — in a convent, warning them against the Devil, who could take the shapes of animals at will, just to deceive pious Christians. A sparrow suddenly flew into the chapel and hopped on the head of a sister. She grabbed it at Dominic’s command and handed it to him. Holding it in one hand Dominic commenced to pluck the feathers from the living bird, yelling that it was the Devil which had come to interrupt his sermon. People in those days saw the Devil often and in myriad costumes. The bird screamed in pain as it was plucked alive. When Dominic finished plucking it, he pitched the poor bird, still alive, out the window telling it to fly if it could. “Fly now if you can, enemy of mankind! you can cry out and trouble us, but you can’t hurt us!”
So, take pity on the lowly sparrow. They really can’t hurt us.
This is not the only story told about Satan as a bird. Here is another.