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What's flattering to a sparrow?

Innumerability and gregariousness seem written into the very nature of sparrows. Nevertheless, I have searched in vain for the correct ''noun of multitude'' to apply to the chattering group of these small birds depicted with such admirable veracity and good-humored observation by the 18th-century Japanese master of ink painting, Nagasawa Rosetsu. ''Flight'' is too general, and anyway the organized confusion of this captured moment is more of a ''landing'' than a flight. ''Herd'' is altogether too large and too agricultural , more suited to swans or buffalo (though it has on occasion - with misplaced abandon - been used for wrens). A ''gaggle'' is noisily and unflatteringly reserved for geese, a ''clamour'' similarly for rooks, a ''murder'' for crows and a ''dopping'' for shelducks.

A ''wisp'' of sparrows might be good, but ornithological usage has restricted that exclusively to snipe. As often is the case, the sparrow, so taken for granted and overlooked, so dismissed for its commonness, has apparently been ignored once more in the matter of collectives.

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But, in spite of all its ordinariness, the mere sparrow has a way of commanding important attention. The great, the good, and even the academic have been known to pay tribute to it. Think of its biblical frequency, symbolic of both unimportance and significance - so cheaply bought, but still so valued and protected and counted. Shakespeare uses it as a term of endearment between some of his characters. Thoreau immortalized a sparrow that alighted on his shoulder for a moment while he was hoeing in a village garden. A lesser philosopher might have mused sardonically on the insensitivity of a bird unable to tell him apart from a scarecrow, but David Henry wrote: ''I felt I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.''

The comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary lists some imposing extensions of the word ''sparrow,'' showing yet further how this insignificant urchin of streets and hedges has a cheeky way of establishing its ubiquity with unexpected pretentiousness. ''Sparrowdom,'' says Oxford, is ''the region of sparrows''; ''sparrowhood'' the ''condition of being a sparrow''; ''sparrowish'' is ''characteristic of a sparrow''; ''sparrowless,'' devoid of them, and ''sparrowy'' means ''abounding in, frequented by, sparrows.''

Rosetsu, it is clear, was conscious of and enchanted by things sparrowy. Although with his extraordinary understanding for creatures small and large he seems aware that each of the birds in his picture is an individual, yet the high comedy of his sparrow-tribute really resides in their group vitality. He positively revels in their identical multiplication and addition.

Their diversity is not so much in their markings, however (repeated by the artist with obvious delight), as in their apparently haphazard and artfully deployed positioning. What he has contributed to a long tradition of Chinese and Japanese bird painting is perhaps his own unusual sense of the sheer playfulness of nature. Even the scientific naturalists of today remain somehow bemused by the apparently unfunctional expression of fun and games by birds and animals.

The word ''sparrow'' has in some languages come virtually to stand for ''bird'' in general: there is something typical about it. Rosetsu's portrayal of busy sparrows is so sympathetic that it seems true to the behaviour of many other creatures also: pigeons, for instance, in Trafalgar Square, shoals of minnows and stickleback in a dark industrial canal, or myriad insects on a summer evening.

Here is the excitement and purpose of creatures en masse (how has he made no more than twenty-nine sparrows look like hundreds?). And the hilarious and by no means rigid obedience of each member of a fluttering crowd.

A fluttering of sparrows: that must be it.

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