Sparrows, Swallows, Culture and AMC’s ‘The Terror: Infamy’

Bird watchers and ornithologists might have been confused by the title of the first episode of AMC’s “The Terror: Infamy.” In North America, the brazen English sparrow (also known as the House Sparrow) a non-native species, is known to usurp the nesting areas of swallows and bluebirds.

Late in the first episode, a mysterious young kimono-clad woman, Yuko (Kiki Sukezane), explains the episode title saying to the protagonist, Chester,  “You are a sparrow in a swallow’s nest. The moment you believe you are safe, the swallows will peck you to death….”

Chester admits, “I once felt safe. Not any more.”

Yuko continues, “We all long for restitution. We mourn the life lost to us, that perfect world we once had.”

Chester interrupts, “I never lived in a perfect world.”

Yuko replies, “Then it lies ahead of you look within yourself. What do you see?”

Chester closes his eyes and says, “An open plain,  A fenced acre.  A house of wood.  A child.”

Yuko assures him, “It is not lost to you.  The house, the child can still be yours. Restore your path or else you will hunger for it forever.”

This makes swallows sound like aggressive birds. From this anecdotal account online, the reverse seems true in North America–House or English Sparrows kill swallows. Other sources note that same problem–displacement of a native species such as swallows and Purple Martins by the non-native sparrows.

You could read into the title a comment about immigration. Yet sparrows are native to Japan and a sparrow is the benefactor of a kind old man in the tale “Shita-kiri Suzume” (舌切り雀), or “Split-Tongue Sparrow.” The sparrow is saved by the elderly man, but his wife is cruel and cuts its tongue while the old man is away. The sparrow flees, but the old man, returning home, goes out to search for it. In the forest, the sparrow greets the man and entertains him well, giving him a gift. When the wife hears what happens, she runs to the forest to meet the sparrow and greedily gets her just reward.

Yet in another folk tale from Mock Joya’s “Things Japanese,” the sparrow and the swallow begin as sisters. They are much alike, but because of their different natures, their appearances have changed. One day, they were both away from home when they get news that their parents are fatally ill and will soon die. The swallow didn’t leave immediately, but cleaned her face and made sure she looked good. Yet she took too much time and by the time she arrived, her parents had died. The sparrow, however, had hurried to see her parents, without a single thought of her appearance. She was able to see her parents before they died and was blessed forever. She would always have enough food to eat. Yet her appearance would always mark her as the one who didn’t take time to clean her face and wash her feathers. She would always be dark and unsightly.

The swallow and all of her descendants would always be sleek and beautiful, but was punished by having to always look far away for food and have to eat mud to build her home.  According to Mock Joya’s “Things Japanese,” “The nests made by swallows are often taken possession of by sparrows. Again, sparrows’ nest are taken by swallows.”

Japanese children might also be familiar with sparrows because of a children’s song written in 1921 (lyrics by Katsura Shimizu (清水かつら ) and the melody by Ryūtarō (弘田龍太郎 )).

チ-チ- パッパ  チ-パッパ

chī chī pappa chī pappa


suzume no gakkō no sensei wa

むちをふりふり チ-パッパ

much wo furifuri chī papa

生徒の雀は 輪になって

seito no suzume wa wa ni natte

お口をそろえて チ-パッパ

o-kuchi o soroete chī pappa

まだまだいけない チ-パッパ

mada mada ikenai chī pappa


mo Ichiro isshō ni chī pappa

The lyrics mean:

chī chī pappa chī pappa

The teacher of the sparrow school

Waves his whip

The sparrow students form a circle

They open their mouths chī chī pappa chī pappa

Still it didn’t any good chī chī pappa chī pappa

One more time all together chī chī pappa chī pappa

Sayings About Sparrows:

ささ に 雀 (sasa ni suzume):

  • The sparrow in the bamboo grass (frequently paired in art and literature)

雀 百 まで 踊 を 忘れず (suzume hyaku made odori wo wasurezu):

  • Sparrows, even if they live to be 100, do not forget their dance. The notion is to learn important lessons in childhood.

荒らそう 雀 人 を 怖れず (arasou suzume hito wo osorezu)

  • Quarreling sparrows do not fear man.

燕雀 なんぞ こうこう の こころざし を知らんや。 (enjaku nanzo kōkō no kokorozashi wo shiran ya)

Also: enjaku izukun zo kōkoku no kokoro wo shiran ya

雀 の 千声 鳥 鶴 の一声(suzume no sengoe tori tsuru no hitogoe):

  • Better one cry of a crane than a thousand chirping of sparrows. One word from a wise man is better than a thousand words from a fool

雀 海中にいって ハマグリとなる(suzume kaichū ni itte hamaguri to naru

  • Sparrow turds into the sea turn into clams

雀 の 涙 (Suzume no namida)

  • the tears of a sparrow or something very small

Sayings About Swallows: 

柳 津波(yanagi ni tsunami)

  • the swallow in the willow

愛愛 傘 の 濡れ 燕ai-ai kasa no nure tsubame two wet swallows under one umbrella (two lovers walking in the rain under the same umbrella

燕が 巣 くわぬ 年 は 火事 にあう (Tsubame ga su kuwanu toshi wa Kaji ni au)

  • The year when the swallows do not return to their old nest, there will be a fire in the house

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