Red List Sixteen – House Sparrow

Dear Readers, there are many exotic and attractively-coloured birds on the Red List this year, but somehow the one that breaks my heart most is the house sparrow. Is it because they’re associated so strongly with cities, especially London, especially the East End? After all, they’re sometimes known as ‘Cockney Sparrers’, and there is something about their no-nonsense attitude to life, their belligerence and their sheer domesticity that appeals to me. House sparrows usually spend their whole lives within one square mile of where they were hatched, and so the birds that turn up in my garden are probably the sons and daughters of the ones who were here when I first arrived back in 2010.

They are undemanding little birds – they need a nice thick hedge, or a building with holes in it (a broken grille or a loose roof tile will do). They like to stick together, so a single nest box will not do. They need caterpillars and aphids to feed their young, so pesticides and plastic lawns and slate chippings and low-maintenance gardens will not work for them. They love a patch of dry soil to dust bathe in, the seeds of groundsel and sowthistle and even Buddleia to feed on. It seems so little, but it’s clearly too much. In a study in Leicester, it was found that many chicks died of starvation because their parents couldn’t find the caterpillars that they needed to eat. The populations were increased when mealworms were provided, but the colony sizes as a whole didn’t increase, which implies that there is another cause of fledgling mortality once they leave the nest. However, there are reasons to be hopeful – house sparrows are actually increasing in number in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which makes me wonder what we’re continuing to do wrong here in England.

Air pollution is a major factor in the decline of many birds, particularly urban ones – let’s not forget that canaries were taken down into coal mines because they were so exquisitely sensitive to gas, and that caged birds often expire on exposure to the gases in paint, wallpaper, cooking materials etc.

The truth is, nobody knows exactly why the house sparrow population has dropped by 71% since 1977, but let’s be glad that they are coming back in some parts of the country. I can see me ordering in some live mealworms when we get to breeding season, and I already have a house sparrow ‘terrace’ of nest boxes which they are studiously ignoring. Maybe one of these years.

20th March is World House Sparrow Day and here, just a bit early, is a poem by Paul Farley (you might remember him from the Mistle Thrush poem last week). This one is one of the ‘Poems on the Underground’ that were posted in tube trains, and which always used to give me pause for thought. See what you think.

For the House Sparrow, In Decline (Paul Farley)

Your numbers fall and it’s tempting to think
you’re deserting our suburbs and estates
like your cousins at Pompeii; that when you return
to bathe in dust and build your nests again
in a roofless world where no one hears your cheeps,
only a starling’s modem mimicry
will remind you of how you once supplied
the incidental music of our lives.

5 thoughts on “Red List Sixteen – House Sparrow

  1. chrisswan94

    Fortunately, there are a few places in Worcester where I know there are definitely house sparrows – you hear them long before you see them. Last week a male was in my neighbour’s garden cheeping away so that’s a hopeful sign. We have yew hedges which they don’t seem to like ( but other birds do). Friar St in Worcester consists of several old timber -framed buildings including the National Trust’s Greyfriars and almshouses. Every spring and summer, the noise is considerable with sparrows shouting at one another across the street. It is quite wonderful.

  2. FEARN

    Our pyracanthas/holly hedge is a hostel for house sparrows (and dunnock and a pair of blackbirds). They have the mob mentality so our GBBW count is either 0 or 24. Back when I used to mow the lawn once or twice a year I was surprised that they were unperturbed by the racket of an electric flymow and would keep making their own racket throughout the session.

  3. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    We have a ‘host’, which regularly comes to our feeders. Most of the other birds seem to stand aside until they have finished and flown away. Some of them may even be nesting in our roof as we see the birds flying from, or near, the gutter. Though I haven’t checked to see if these are house or tree sparrows.


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