"The stillness as the first birds abound
As we sit still with natures art
We may just hear a sparrow fart."
- Russell Nicolson
"Really effing early."
— Urbandictionary definition
There's a bright haze on the meadow, the mist filters through the trees and hedgerows and the distant horizon lights up, dim and grey. If you are lucky, there's a golden colour, that of autumn leaves, interspersed with red. It's dawn, and the birds have been singing for hours. The quality of light is wonderful, almost tangible on these Spring mornings, the air is clear and full of promise. It's sparrow-fart and the day is beginning.
At least, it was like that once. These days, in the city, the dawn is a dirty yellow, the haze is smog and the air is...tangible, but literally, and not in a good way. And the taste ain't so hot, either, child. Round these parts, the birds are more likely to be coughing than singing.
Birds as a rule, are up long before us. Consider the dawn chorus and the farmyard cockerel and the country tradition of getting up at that hour to begin the day's toil. In this modern age, the birds have been up and about for hours before we struggle back from sleep - for my part I am returning home to hear the first stirrings of life in nests, and am falling into sleep as most folk are still in dreamland.
Sparrowfart is an old English country expression meaning "dawn" - quite an apt description for that time of day. Quiet enough in the country to literally hear the eructations of most animals, but birds especially, are traditionally up before us, and that is likely to remain the case. Even in the city, you'll hear them over the susurrus of the traffic as the city comes to terms with another new day.
At one time I worked as a window cleaner out in the sticks near the M1 motorway. I'd always aim to be out and ready to start for 8 o'clock, and would sit in my car and have a final cup of tea before beginning the day's graft. The mixture of birdsong and traffic noise was strangely relaxing - the low drone of the cars as a background to the twittering of the birds.
Usage nowadays seems to be in the Antipodes and in Britain, and the phrase is most commonly used in a jocular way. "You mean I have to be up at sparrow-fart"? It's not the sort of thing I can imagine the Americans say, although I can imagine it sitting well with the Irish, whose love of wordplay is renowned. However you use it, in my mind it's still too early to be about.
Addendum Of course these days I live in the country, am often up at 0300 to prepare to go to farmers' market, and generally wake at first light anyway. I get to see the world in a different way now.
interrobang says Heh. The American equivalent to this is "crack of crow-piss".
toalight says Strange. Up north in Norway we say "oppe før fuglan fis", which translates to "up before the birds start farting."