Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country: Who shot Cock Robin? The now, not-so-common House Sparrow

Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country: Who shot Cock Robin? The now, not-so-common House Sparrow

 House Sparrows by Ian 2

A while back, Ron Parkin of Clubgarden Road, Sheffield 11, emailed me about sparrows. ‘Hello Ian, I always look forward to your articles in the Star and the reason for this Email is that the house opposite me on as a bush in its front garden that seems to be a playground for between 20 and 30 House Sparrows every day. I am not sure what type of bush it is, but the local cats come to watch but because they cannot get to them, they give up. This doesn’t put the sparrows off. I have had a close look at the bush and it as no food or berries on it. It is fascinating to watch them playing, but what on earth is happening?’ A recent bulletin from the British Trust for Ornithology reminded me of this story. House Sparrows are very gregarious and do seem to have favoured dense bushes. They are incredibly active, vocal and communal and will loaf together and roost together. I have observed similar behaviour myself, most recently in a dense ornamental shrub in a small front garden in Little Longstone, in Derbyshire. I presume the birds are interacting and establishing their bonding and pecking order. Later in the year, they have a similar mating behaviour but not in winter.

House Sparrows feeding by IanJuvenile House Sparrows by Ian

During recent decades, sparrow populations generally have fallen across Britain, with both the rural Tree Sparrow and the generally urban House Sparrow plummeting. There are various causes of House Sparrow declines with tidying of buildings removing nesting sites, changes from horsepower and abundant seed spillages in towns and cities, to motor vehicles, and competition from other, more aggressive species. Local correspondents have reported to me for example, how Wood Pigeons are outcompeting House Sparrows on garden bird feeders. For Tree Sparrows, the story is different and they seem to be a now classic example of a casualty of modern ‘improved’ and intensive farming. Old hedges and large hedgerow trees with rot-pocket nesting holes have gone. Meadows and cornfields have become large agri-industrial spaces with little room for wildlife. Old farm buildings have either collapsed or been improved, both with the loss of nesting sites.

Baby House Sparrow showing the yellow bill markings which encourage the parents to feed it! 2Male House Sparrow

Baby House Sparrow with yellow gape. Adult male House Sparrow

In recent years particularly, House Sparrow populations have fallen by about, causing alarm amongst scientists and sadness for the public. However, there is some good news on the horizon as it looks like the decline in gardens at least, is levelling off. The BTO’s garden bird surveys show signs of stabilisation of the reduced populations and maybe some recovery. The collapse of House Sparrow numbers has indeed been dramatic, with populations falling from around 12 million British pairs in the 1970s to around 6-7 million pairs today. In Victorian and early twentieth century towns and cities, numbers were even higher. Ramshackle houses provided abundant nest sites and spillage of oat s and others seeds from horse feed provided rich picking of food. Interestingly, the recent surveys show that for the latest decline, the numbers fell most in urban and rural areas, with suburban populations holding up best. The message here is that gardens are an especially valuable House Sparrow habitat. BTO Garden BirdWatch data indicate a levelling in gardens and in the wider countryside. There are various causes of the declines and since House Sparrows are rather sedentary, so they do not move around, a local loss can be long-term. Generally, loss of nesting sites as we tidy up houses and other buildings can be catastrophic. Other stresses include lack of available food, particularly invertebrates knocked out by pesticide use, to feed the young birds. Garden bird feeders and mixed food sources clearly help this problem. Nevertheless, nest sites are also needed and this is something worth considering carefully when undertaking house repairs or extensions, when you can make space for the sparrows. In rural areas, changes to buildings or the demolition of outbuildings can take their toll. However, the real culprit here is in intensified farming practices and the loss of beneficial crops, weeds, and hedgerows. In suburban and farming areas, increased competition from other birds and increased pesticide use has put pressure on sparrows.

Male House Sparrow by Ian

Clare Simm, from the BTO Garden Ecology Team, told me, ‘This complexity is also reflected in the factors that are driving the change in this delightful bird’s fortunes. We are a nation of wildlife lovers and more people are now managing their gardens for wildlife, which will be benefitting our House Sparrows. There is also a greater awareness of clean feeding stations and in reducing garden pesticide use. The combination of these factors could be helping the House Sparrow to maintain its population.’

Juvenile House Sparrow by Ian

House Sparrows are not necessarily out of danger, but things are looking up. There are some simple things you can do in your gardens to encourage House Sparrows. 1) Let an area of your garden go wild to encourage insects. 2) Plant shrubs species, which provide dense shelter and cover for House Sparrows to hide in. 3) Provide your birds with a home, using either a House Sparrow terrace or a group of nest boxes (with 32-mm entrance holes) near the eaves of your house. 4) If you feed your birds, provide them with a suitable seed mix that includes large grains. 5) Regularly clean your feeding stations to prevent disease. You can get more information on how to help your House Sparrows, (a free House Sparrow leaflet) at gbw@bto.org, telephone 01842 750050 or write to GBW, BTO, The Nunnery, Thetford, Norfolk, IP24 2PU. Sparrows need wider support in the urban environment too – so protection for the sparrow hedge cleared at Meersbrook Park a few years back, and habitat like the shrubberies blitzed to ground level on St Mary’s Gate and Hanover Way more recently.

Tree Sparrow

Tree Sparrow adult with typical white face patch and black cheek spot

In the Sheffield area, you can look out for Tree Sparrows still in just a few locations. The rural farming belts to the east and the south are the most promising, but they do occur into the green suburbs, especially in areas like the Gleadless Valley in south-east Sheffield. Another very good place to look is around the RSPB Old Moor and Dearne Valley complex. Both these once commonplace bird species need and deserve our help. It is a salutary message when something as basic as the humble House Sparrow is under threat.

Professor Ian D. Rotherham, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues, is contactable on ianonthewildside@ukeconet.co.uk ;

Follow ‘Ian’s Walk on the Wildside’, www.ukeconet.org  for more information.

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2 Responses to Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country: Who shot Cock Robin? The now, not-so-common House Sparrow

  1. Pingback: Hooray For The Sun! | emilykarn

  2. Pingback: Tree sparrow drives away house sparrow, video | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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