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Pity the little sparrow
3:16pm Monday 17th October 2011 in Country News latest
THE house sparrow – cheeky, chirpy and everywhere. Or at least, that is what we were once lucky enough to believe.
For this bird, that for thousands of years has made its home and carved out its fortunes by our side, is in deep trouble.
Passer domesticus is slowly, inexorably, slipping out of view.
In the last 30 years the bird has undergone a dramatic decline both in its urban stronghold and in the wider countryside.
A bird once so common that its presence in vast flocks lead to the sobriquet ‘Cockney’ sparrow is now scarce and to allow the species to disappear would be a disaster. But, you may say, how can things have got this bad in the first place and, is there anything we can do to arrest the decline?
The bird’s name comes from the Anglo Saxon word ‘spearwa’ and its antiquity hints at our ancientshared bond.
Since we first started to cultivate our environment these adaptive and resourceful birds have been drawn to us both as an unwitting supply of food and nesting sites.
The wide range of vernacular names, ‘spuggie’ in north-east England, ‘spurdie’ north of the border, to the widely used ‘spadger’, reveal how successful the house sparrow has been across the length and breadth of the country.
It took advantage of our wasteful ways, gorging on spilt grain and discarded crumbs and it used the nooks and crannies around our homes to build elaborate sparrow tenements.
So successful was the bird that in the pre-war years the population swelled to tens of millions. And this growth took place at a time when the humble house sparrow did not enjoy the bonhomie extended to the species today but when it was public enemy number one.
The bird’s grain-stealing habits have irked farmers from time immemorial and its eggs and young were widely collected by country folk as a food source well into the 1940s.
In the 19th century the macabre phenomenon of sparrow clubs became commonplace. They operated by awarding trophies to whoever in the parish killed the most birds.
But despite all these predations, sparrow numbers were hardly touched. The first population decline came between the two world wars when horses gave way to cars as the preferred means of getting from A to B.
Prior to this, the birds readily gobbled up spilt horse grain and the seeds deposited in dung.
Then, in the 1970s, things took a more sinister turn. From 1978 to 2008 the population fell by a staggering 71 per cent. Various theories have been put forward from the highly dubious suggestion of overkill by sparrowhawks, to habitat loss, rising pollution levels and falling insect populations on which sparrow chicks depend.
House sparrow populations are still falling but moves are finally afoot to give the bird a fighting chance.
The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has recently discovered that the birds prefer homes with gardens rather than other bits of urban space.
It believes this is because parks tend to be rather sparse whereas gardens boast bushes much loved by sparrows as gathering and nesting sites.
The birds also depend on cavities under tiles in our roofs as key nesting sites. So by giving them a home we can all give sparrows a helping hand.
The BTO suggests that to create the perfect sparrow des-res the diameter of the nest box entrance hole must be about 32mm.
And by planting bushes such as barberry and cotoneaster in our gardens we can provide the additional shelter much loved by the species.
Planting these bushes also brings an additional wildlife bonus. During winter the berries on the cotoneaster will attract hungry thrushes and if you’re lucky the spectacular waxwing, while the barberry could attract rare insects such as the barberry carpet moth.
We still have time to save this most British of birds, but the house sparrow’s long-term survival may just depend on us giving an old friend a home.