Dear Readers, Toronto is a splendid city but it is not overly blessed with green space – in fact, it has less parks and gardens in the centre of town than practically anywhere I can think of. But somehow, in spite of this, the air resounds with the relentless cheep-cheep-cheep of house sparrows, even in the most unremittingly concrete areas of town. Everywhere I look sparrows are beating one another up (like they do), bathing in dust bowls and hopping around anyone sitting on a bench and eating in an untidy manner.
I saw a poor homeless person today, laying on one of the vents from the subway system, which provides a bit of warmth on a sub-zero day. All around him were pigeons and sparrow, making short work of the crumbs from a sandwich which someone had given him, and which he had crumbled onto the sidewalk for the birds. It moves me so much that when people have next to nothing, they still want to help others. But I doubt that it’s the kindness of strangers alone that means that Toronto has sparrows, and London now has next to none in the centre of town. These little birds, such symbols of urban resilience and a kind of Cockney cheekiness, have disappeared from their inner London range in my lifetime.
One reason that the house sparrow might be doing so well in Toronto is the style of the buildings. Sparrows are communal nesters, and it seems to me that the style of many Ontario buildings, with their wooden porches and high roofs, might provide an excellent spot for the birds to nest (and some of the older municipal buildings in central Toronto look quite promising as nest sites). Plus, house sparrows are not native to North America but were introduced, along with Eurasian starlings and feral pigeons, and so some of their predators, such as the sparrowhawk, are absent here.
What a shame that a bird that we are eager to encourage in the UK can be legally culled here in Canada – the feisty house sparrow outcompetes birds such as chickadees and even bluebirds. I suspect that they won’t be in much danger here in Toronto, though, where only some of the boldest birds, such as North American Robins, seem to thrive. And I note that a 2019 study that looked at populations of birds in North America also noted that even common urban birds like house sparrows seemed to be in decline. Let’s hope that the house sparrows of Toronto don’t go the same way as the house sparrows of London.