Last Saturday, 20th March, was World Sparrow Day. Needless to say, no sparrows turned up in our garden to celebrate the occasion. When we moved in 35 years ago house sparrows were common here, squabbling noisily and boisterously on the bird table. Now, if we get half a dozen sightings over a 12 months period we class it as a good year for sparrows. Here, and throughout the UK, house sparrow numbers have been in serious decline for decades.
Growing up in West London half a century ago sparrows were the most familiar birds in our garden. Our name for them was spugs, or alternatively spadgers. They were very common, part of the wallpaper of our suburban lives, and we took them for granted. No one would have believed then that one day they would be “in trouble.”
The State of the UK’s Birds 2020 report published by the RSPB suggests that there were 5.3 million breeding pairs in the UK in 2018, making the house sparrow our third most common breeding bird behind the wren (11m) and the robin (7.3m), and marginally ahead of the woodpigeon (5.2m). It adds that “In the late 1960s there were 10 times more house sparrows than woodpigeons. We have lost around 10.7 million pairs of house sparrows in that time, a loss greater than for any other species, and gained 3.5 million pairs of woodpigeons.” No surprise, therefore, that the house sparrow is on the UK’s Red List for birds of conservation concern.
The latest figures offer a glimmer of hope: numbers are now thought to be stable or increasing in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However this is little consolation to those of us in England, where numbers continue to fall.
The cause of the rapid decline, particularly in urban and suburban environments, is unclear, although a lack of invertebrate prey for chicks – perhaps resulting from pollution or increased used of pesticides by gardeners – is believed to be a factor. Other proposed but as yet unproven reasons include reduced opportunities for nesting in the modern urban environment, and predation by domestic cats. Declines in rural house sparrow populations are thought to be linked to seasonal food shortages resulting from changes in agricultural practices, particularly the move to sowing cereal crops in the autumn.
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Although the decline of house sparrows in the UK has been dramatic, the declaration of the first World Sparrow Day wasn’t a British initiative. Instead it was the brainchild of Nature Forever (NFS), an Indian non-governmental, non-profit organization which aims to “involve citizens from all walks of life, diverse backgrounds and different parts of the country and the world” in conservation projects. Nature Forever’s championing of the house sparrow is a good indication of the bird’s global reach.
Ted Anderson, Emeritus Professor of Biology at McKendree College in Illinois has argued that the house sparrow is the most widely distributed wild bird on Earth. It is believed to have originated in the Middle East, but having developed a close association with humans, it extended its range across Eurasia in tandem with the spread of agriculture. More recently Europeans have deliberately introduced the house sparrow to other parts of the globe, either as a pest control initiative or to remind them of home, and accidentally taken them to other locations as stowaways on their ships.
It’s perhaps no surprise therefore that, in recent years, Mrs P and I have seen many more house sparrows on our visits to North America, Australia and New Zealand than we ever manage to spot in our own backyard. If numbers here continue to fall the time may well come when we have to go cap in hand to our former colonies and beg to have some of our sparrows back. Oh, the humiliation!
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In folklore and literature sparrows have an enduring reputation for sexual promiscuity. Geoffrey Chaucer reflects this in the Canterbury Tales when he writes “As hot, he was, and lecherous as a sparrow . . .” Two hundred years later, in 1604, William Shakespeare wrote in Measure for Measure that “Sparrows must not build in his house eaves, because they are lecherous . . .”
Amazingly, modern science shows that these seemingly outrageous accusations are not entirely inaccurate. DNA analysis has shown that 15% of the chicks produced by a settled pair of house sparrows are in fact the offspring of a third party, proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction.
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The house sparrow is not the only species of sparrow found on these shores. Although the so-called hedge sparrow, also known as a dunnock, isn’t really a sparrow at all (it belongs to the family birds called accentors), the tree sparrow really is a sparrow.
While house sparrows are regularly seen in both urban and rural settings, the tree sparrow is very much a bird of the countryside, particularly hedgerows and woodland edges. Their distribution tends to be localised, and they are much less plentiful than house sparrows: the latest population estimate is 245,000 breeding pairs. We have not and would not expect to see tree sparrows in our suburban garden, but there is a nature reserve within a few miles of Platypus Towers where we can often spot them.
It’s always a pleasure to see tree sparrows since they, like house sparrows, have suffered a calamitous decline in numbers (around 90%) since 1970, although in the last few years that fall has slowed and may have started to reverse. Again, changes in agricultural practice are the likely cause, and with no prospect of these being reversed the tree sparrow remains on the UK’s Red List for birds of conservation concern.
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And finally, to conclude my little celebration of World Sparrow Day, I commend to you Dolly Parton singing “Little Sparrow.” The songs begins with these words
Little sparrow, little sparrow Precious, fragile little thing Little sparrow, little sparrow Flies so high and feels no pain
Of course, the song isn’t really about sparrows at all. For Dolly, the sparrow is a simply a metaphor for gentle innocence, and anyway the North American sparrows about which she sings (Emberizidae) aren’t in the same family as Old Word sparrows (Passeridae). But whatever, that second line has always haunted me. In four words it captures perfectly the magic of birds both great and small, and encapsulates my feelings for them. Birds are precious and fragile, and even relatively common birds like the sparrow need our help if they are to continue to fly high and feel no pain.