He is nimble, clever, cheeky. A feisty little guy who nevertheless tries to keep safe as far as possible. Not much attention is paid to him, although he is endemic to southern Africa and our constant companion – in large cities as much as in remote grasslands. But Passer melanurus, the Cape Sparrow, perhaps better known as mossie, is a delight to watch and in a way has even come to fame.

Cape Sparrow
As far as sparrows go, the male Cape Sparrow is more strikingly coloured than the female. He is handsome with his mostly black head and wide black bib on the breast. His lady’s head is a dull grey-brown, otherwise she is plumaged much the same as the male, with chestnut brown feathers on the lower back. (Photo: Kirsten Kraft)

The Cape Sparrow’s strategy of success is its adaptability. This little bird, which grows to a length of up to 15 centimetres, is flexible in its choice of nesting place, but it doesn’t create an architectural masterpiece. Both parent birds collect twigs, mop fluff and feathers as nesting material for their potential nursery and put it together in a wildly mixed-up mess. The sparrow’s nest looks like an avian version of a pigsty. The top priority is socializing and love for one another. On the one hand chirping together when foraging for food, on the other hand eyes only for the chosen one. Cape Sparrows are said to be monogamous; breeding pairs stay together all year round and probably maintain a partner relationship until one of them dies. We admire the optimistically cheerful independence of the sparrow combined with its loving care for its partner that makes it so endearing to us. But it’s not the many names, proverbs and phrases in which the word “sparrow” occurs, which made the Cape Sparrow famous.

Cape Sparrow
Cape Sparrows love gregariousness and they share their food – albeit with a great clamour at times. Apparently they are less generous when choosing a partner. (Photo: Kirsten Kraft)

As the story goes, Afrikaans women who were imprisoned in British concentration camps during the second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), chose a verse from the Bible for encouragement. The third largest and probably most gruesome camp was Bethulie in the Orange Free State. There the chosen theme was Matthew 10: 29-31. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Cape Sparrow
At the request of women who were interned during the second Anglo-Boer War, the lowest coin minted for the South African Union was emblazoned with two Cape Sparrows. (Photo: www.winsociety.org)

After the war the survivors sent a petition to General Jan Smuts. The brave women asked for the emblem of a sparrow to be emblazoned on the lowest coin to thank God for having survived the war and to remind all men and women of their true worth in God’s eyes.

In 1923 the South African Reserve Bank issued the first South African Union coin bearing two sparrows on the obverse. Cape Sparrows later also adorned the Halfpenny and from 1961 to 1964 the half cent coin of the Republic of South Africa. From 1965 the pair of birds occupied the reverse of the 1 cent coin until it was taken out of circulation. Thus, through a verse from the Bible, the Cape Sparrow gained prestige and became a symbol of love but also forgiveness.

Cape Sparrow
A Cent saved is a Rand earned.
The South African one cent coin is increasing in value as a collector’s item. The superstitious keep it in their purse, hoping that – physically as well as symbolically – they will never run out of money. (Photo: Kirsten Kraft)

Nowadays, the coin is increasing in collector’s value. Depending on its condition and year, the coin is currently trading for up to US$ 2.50 on the internet. The superstitious keep it in their wallet as a lucky charm, true to the motto: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, because a Cent saved is a Rand earned.

Author: Kirsten Kraft

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