Let's go back in time...
I started becoming a keen birdwatcher in my early teens back in the distant 1970's. I'd always had an interest in natural history from being pretty tiny, with butterflies a first fascination, but birds eventually took over. We'd always fed the garden birds, not with the exotic delights of sunflower hearts and mealworms of the 21st century, but back then it was bread crusts, and finely chopped bacon rind.
All I remember really seeing was loads of sparrows and starlings who between them would quickly devour everything that was put out. The chirping of the sparrows and the melody of the starlings was the audio background of my childhood (along with Johnnie Walker and John Peel on Radio 1).The sparrows would squeeze under the eaves of our suburban Cardiff bungalow to make their nests and seemingly all was happy in sparrow-land.
Coming back to the present day...
Research seems to suggest that house sparrows have declined in numbers by over 70% since those heady days of the 1970's. Normally when there's any massive population decline in a bird species we can quickly blame our wonderful farmers, but hang on a minute - these are HOUSE sparrows, and are mostly living, feeding and breeding around our dwellings. So just this once, the farmers are off the hook. Thankfully the decline has now stabilised, but the house sparrow remains on the conservation red-list. There are many theories for this decimation of what was our commonest garden bird.
What has changed for the house sparrow?
Some of the theories put forward for this decline are:
- Loss of suitable nesting sites - new homes don't have easy access under the eaves
- Reduction of preferred food for both adults and chicks - sparser, tidier gardens
- Increase of predation - more sparrowhawks and cats
- Increase of disease and pollution have also been cited
Curiously, but supporting the above theories it has been shown that sparrows are doing better in more deprived areas where there are some remaining wasteland patches and more old buildings providing nest sites. The likelihood of pollution from garden pesticides is also less in these areas.
One other un-tested theory of my own is that people have rather turned against sparrows (and starlings) in their gardens. Many of us get great delight from feeding and encouraging our garden birds, but it's interesting how many people only want to attract the more exotic garden visitors. This is great as we all love to see goldfinches, siskins, blackcaps and great spotted woodpeckers in our gardens, but it seems we don't want sparrows, starlings and squirrels to have first pick. So perhaps bizarrely, birdfeeders have been designed to make them less attractive to the less agile sparrow who struggles to hang upside down and whose bill is too thick for those wildly swinging mesh feeders. There will always be winners and losers in nature conservation, and perhaps the sparrow loses out in this instance.
What can we do to help?
Nobody wants to start knocking holes in their houses to help sparrows, but we can do some simple things to provide a shared living space for us and our sparrow housemates:
- Avoid the temptation to turn your front garden into a concrete carpark
- Develop a small veg patch and leave a few plants go to seed for the foraging sparrows
- Splash out on a sparrow parade nesting box
- If you feed your garden birds, make sure the sparrows can get to it
- Learn to love, rather than take sparrows for granted
- Keep feeding stations clean to avoid the spread of disease
- Grow a native hedge to give provide cover from predators
Sparrows in the sun...
Interestingly I now spend a lot of winter time in Andalucia and the garden there is full of sparrows with a roost of 30 or 40 in next door's hedge, and wherever you walk you can hear chirping sparrows. So why is this? I really don't know as the Spanish are not famous for encouraging their garden birds and their farmers certainly do not put conservation top of their agenda.
One thing that is different is that there are lots of patches of gardens and allotments that are left to go semi-wild, and the sparrows seem to feed in these areas and I've also noticed lots using the drainage pipes put into retaining walls as nesting sites once the winter rains have finished. Or simply, the sparrows may have followed the other 2 million Brits to the warmer climes and cheaper wine of the Costas. This might not be such a daft explanation as bird populations do have gradual change in geographic areas, and maybe the decline in the UK is more evolution than devastation. Let's hope so.