When I was a little girl growing up in Stratford in the East End of London, the soundtrack to a trip to the park was the monotone chirping of House Sparrows. They had only one call, and they used it to express everything from agitation to anger, from amorous intention to outright disdain. They hopped around my feet when I went to feed the ducks in Victoria Park, and skipped between the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. But the best place of all to see sparrows was in St James’s Park, where an elderly homeless man stood at one end of the main bridge, his outstretched hands and arms covered in the birds. Sometimes they landed on his head, or pecked seed from his beard. He reminded me a little of St Francis of Assisi, for, in addition to the sparrows, he had squirrels and various waterfowl clustered around his feet, and an audience of pigeons watching the action from the low fences that aimed to keep tourists off the lawns.
A few weeks ago, a walk in St James’s Park yielded not a single sparrow.
I occasionally get House Sparrows on my feeders in the garden, but I took these photos on a recent visit to see my parents in Dorset. They have a flock of at least thirty sparrows who spend all day flying in and out of the ten-foot high beech hedge and, at this time of year, emptying a bird feeder of seed every single day. I suspect that the hedge and the bird food are key to their survival – they have a place to roost, nest and feed and, if the beech mast fails, there is always a plentiful supply of sunflower seeds on tap.
Sparrows are the ultimate ‘little brown jobs’. They are not brightly coloured like tits or finches, they are not melodious like blackbirds. And yet, there is a subtle beauty to their mottled wings, and much to admire in their toughness and adaptability.
Sparrows nest and roost communally, and spend all day foraging as a group. Studies done many years ago show that in any flock, there will be a bird who acts as vanguard and is the first to fly down to a new food source. If he (and it is normally a ‘he’) isn’t immediately pounced upon by a cat, the other birds will follow. The bold bird who descends first is likely to have more mating success than the others, so it isn’t a purely altruistic move. In male sparrows, the darker and larger the black patch on the face and throat, the more testosterone the bird packs, and the more attractive he is to females.
The decline of the House Sparrow is deeply alarming, because if we can lose these, the commonest of birds when I was a girl, what chance is there for rarer creatures? In his book ‘The Birds of London’, Andrew Self offers this statistic. In 1925, there were 2603 sparrows in Kensington Gardens. In 2005, not a single bird was counted.
Many reasons are cited for their decline. Because sparrows nest communally, they need eaves or hedges or crevices, things amply provided by old factories and barns, and Victorian houses. The trend towards building with glass and steel in the capital has made many birds homeless. Furthermore, sparrows are extremely loyal to the place where they were fledged – many birds don’t travel more than a mile from this spot during their entire lives. When their homes are demolished, the birds may just disappear through want of a spot to rest their heads and raise their babies.
Another reason may be the loss of the old bombsites and other areas of wasteground which used to provide food for the birds. They are very partial to some of my favourite Wednesday Weeds, like Shepherd’s Purse and Groundsel. Furthermore, during the breeding season they also eat insects, and are very adept at catching them – I watched them hawking for mosquitoes in Innsbruck this year. The loss of these brownfield sites also diminishes their invertebrate food, and maybe has an impact on the number of chicks that they are able to raise.
Unfortunately, space is at such a premium in London that many gardens have also been disappearing under concrete, to provide parking spaces or just because people have no time to garden. In a report titled ‘London – Garden City?’, it was found that hard surfacing (which also has an impact on flooding) has increased by some 26% over the past 8 years, and ‘vegetated surfaces’ (lawns, beds and trees) have decreased by 12% in the same period. All this has an impact on the plant and insect food available for many creatures, not just sparrows.
Fortunately, some of the more enlightened councils are developing ‘sparrow-friendly’ plots in their parks and greenspaces, like the one below. There is one in Whittington Park in Archway, and the variety of annual and perennial ‘weeds’ is not only attractive but a real magnet for all kinds of pollinators, so the whole natural community benefits.I am troubled by the decline of the sparrow. It has happened during my lifetime and, as an Eastender myself, it seems particularly sad that the ubiquitous ‘cockney sparrer’ is now, if not as rare as hen’s teeth, certainly an uncommon sight. I am much heartened, though, by the way that so many people in London (and elsewhere) are becoming aware of their impact on the environment, and are trying to do something to make recompense. People are putting out birdfeeders, growing plants for pollinators, putting up nestboxes. Is it too little, too late? Possibly. But from these little seeds, surprising things can grow. It is astonishing how much people can change things when they really want to.
Shakespeare has Hamlet say that ‘there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow’. Maybe, the fall of the sparrows of London will serve as a wake-up call for all of us.