The visitor

When I glanced out of the window to check the weather, something in the back garden caught my eye, something unfamiliar and unusual. I looked again and spotted an incongruous bright blob on top of the hedge. At first I thought it must be a piece of wind-blown plastic, but then I realised it was a small, snow-white bird roosting among my small garden’s many resident house sparrows (Passer domesticus – Welsh: aderyn y to).

Although by no means an expert, over the years I’ve accrued a fairly broad knowledge of birds, thanks to my love of nature, my general curiosity about all topics and the formative influence of my bird-watching father. He was a self-trained ornithological authority who spent most of his free time with binoculars and notebook on the Gwynllŵg coastal marshes, becoming so expert he could not only differentiate between notoriously similar-looking birds like willow warblers and chiffchaffs but also identify virtually every native species, sight unseen, from their call alone. He filled bookshelves with bird identification guides and during holidays and family outings he would point out and name every bird encountered. Thus I knew straight away that the only all-white birds in Wales are gannets, terns, egrets, swans and snowy owls, and that there were none at all of this small songbird size. Who was this other-worldly avian visitor? I grabbed my camera phone and went out into the garden – but it had flown.

I researched the matter online and in bird guides, offloaded to me by the old man over the years, and found that it could only be an albino house sparrow. Albinism, caused when both parents carry the specific albino gene, can occur in nearly every animal species but is always extremely rare, since the gene itself is rare and thus the chance likelihood of two unknowing carriers mating is statistically infinitesimal. That rarity is compounded by the very high mortality rate of albinos across the species. Few live very long: if they are predators, their prey will see them coming and they starve; if they are prey, their predators spot them easily and they get eaten. My heart filled with the urge to protect the vulnerable little thing from some of the many dangerous consequences of standing out like a sore thumb – an empathy born, no doubt, of shared experience. Even here in Splott, where the natural world has been more or less entirely obliterated and the house sparrow’s traditional nemesis the sparrowhawk hasn’t been seen in a century, there are enough hungry animals around to home in on such a sitting target: clacking magpies jumping across the rooftops, circling herring gulls deep-scanning every movement and stealthy cats prowling along the walls and fences – not to mention cruel humans partial to killing for killing’s sake. All I could do was wish my wondrous white sparrow luck.

You don’t see many human albinos. The demotic, demented oligarch who has seized power and abolished parliament in the UK isn’t albino (like everything else about him even the hair is a lie: those flyaway, blow-dried strands and split ends are peroxide-bleached). The best-known albinos I can think of are the American blues-rock musicians, brothers Edgar Winter and Johnny Winter (1944-2014), the brilliant Welsh musical experimentalist and iconoclast David Wrench and that in-demand ‘supermodel’ whose name escapes me. Needless to say, there is a disgraceful human history of discrimination against albinos across the world. Whereas the instinct of sparrows is to treasure and support the unique and the special in their midst, the instinct of humans is to persecute and destroy difference. It seems we are the mindless bird-brains who need a pecking order.

I kept a watch on the garden for days and then, suddenly, there was whitey again! This time it was basking in the evening sun on the privet at the far corner of the garden, seemingly surrounded by a protective girdle of ordinary sparrows. And this time the camera was to hand and I was able to quickly take this poor-quality photo:

Ever alert to the potential messages of the symbolic, the metaphorical and the allegorical, and always a sucker for portentous synchronicity, I can’t resist interpreting the privilege of being visited by this miraculous being as an inspiring encouragement and rallying cry – from one outcast, renegade, black sheep to another.

Picture: Dic Mortimer (!)