The alarm bells are ringing! House sparrows, of all birds, are in serious decline and the British population of this universal bird has fallen across these islands by a staggering seventy per cent and in Europe as a whole by some 150 million birds over the past thirty years. Yet even with such figures in mind, the truth is that there are still over five million pairs of these versatile little fellows at large across this land. Furthermore, even if they are in decline in England, they are apparently, for reasons I do not fully understand, still prospering in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Is this as a result of global warming or do they perhaps, feel more at home on the Celtic Fringe?
Some say that the decline is down to changes in the way we construct houses and presumably other buildings. Modern structures are, it seems, much less ‘sparrow friendly’ with fewer opportunities in particular, for them to build nests. That certainly was not the case when I was a lad, for the eaves of my childhood home always provided ample nesting opportunities which I recall, were very willingly taken. Those eaves fairly echoed to the noisy chatter of speugs virtually during every month of the year! However, these massive figures of decline are food for serious thought and I would have thought, not by any means entirely explained by an apparent lack of nesting sites. After all, sparrows are notoriously adaptable birds, on the evidence down the years, able to adapt to almost any circumstance.
More ominously, some suggest that our sparrows may be likened to the canaries once carried underground by miners. If the canaries died, the message was to don breathing masks and to get out of the mine because of the presence of gas or at best a serious decline in air quality. It is therefore asserted by some that the substantial decline in sparrow numbers, especially in towns and cities mirrors the use of those canaries. Some see this as a warning that such places are indeed becoming increasingly hazardous and polluted, largely thanks to the increasing weight of traffic and the fumes that go with such increases. However, there are many other theories pertaining to the reduction in sparrow numbers, including what might at first glance seem the most fanciful notion, promoted by Spanish experts, who blame radiation from mobile phones!
And yet, in the face of this evidence of decline, history tells us some remarkable stories of sparrow survival and opportunism. A pair was for instance, recorded nesting on the eightieth floor of New York’s Empire State Building whilst in stark contrast, others have been known to survive for several years two thousand feet below ground in Yorkshire coal mines where presumably they were sustained by food provided by the miners. Furthermore, sparrows have over the years, followed mankind into the most obscure corners of this globe and have somehow managed to colonise six of the world’s seven continents. Theirs is therefore a quite remarkable story of global success. Furthermore, that success story has undoubtedly been cemented by the sparrow’s insistence upon living cheek by jowl with us. That however, might be coming home to roost!
Travel anywhere in the world and you will find sparrows sharing man’s food and indeed his dwellings too. Indeed, such has been the omnipresence of these wee birds over the years, they have been widely regarded as something of a nuisance and as a result, have at times been the subject of serious persecution. Whilst most folk probably regard house sparrows as urban or at best, suburban birds, being the opportunists that they are, they are also very familiar birds in rural areas too. The blocky shape of the sparrow’s beak tells us that grain is an important dietary item and consequently farms where grain is grown or stored are especially attractive to them. And, as sparrows are exceedingly well known for their ability to go forth and multiply, as consumers of valuable grain they have from time to time, inevitably brought upon themselves, a climate of antagonism.
Hundreds of years ago in the Low Countries, ‘sparrow pots’ were invented and subsequently introduced to parts of Britain. These were hung to encourage sparrows to nest, a cunning ruse, which was duly exploited with the eggs taken in order to produce omelettes – an extremely useful source of extra protein for folk struggling to feed themselves properly. Furthermore, sparrow pie was in some parts, a local delicacy. Early in the twentieth century, the destruction of sparrows was encouraged by the formation of ‘sparrow clubs’, just as ‘squirrel clubs’ were also all the rage at that time as a means of controlling red squirrel numbers and thus protecting commercial forests from damage. Indeed, during the Second World War, when every ounce of grain was seen as a contribution to the war effort, the BBC regularly broadcast Government appeals for sparrow destruction!
Once upon a time, sparrows were relatively rare hereabouts but over the years, their numbers have grown. I suspect the influx initially, was the over-spill from burgeoning populations on neighbouring farms. Each morning these days, I am entertained when I throw scraps out for my motley flock of hens and watch the sparrows dart down to filch items from under the very beaks of my well-fed poultry. Sparrow numbers here in recent years, have been augmented by the arrival of small numbers of the closely related tree sparrows, which are comparatively rare and much more rurally orientated birds.
If they weren’t so common, sparrows might well be renowned for their attractive plumage. Cock sparrows in particular, with their streaky brown and grey plumage and becoming little black bibs are actually quite attractive. The tree sparrow, with its little black cheek spots is arguably even more pleasing on the eye.
This startling recent decline in sparrow numbers however, should be taken extremely seriously. They are not the only birds in decline. Recent figures tell a depressing story of declining farmland birds. Skylarks, which until a couple of years ago were always a significant presence here, serenading me as only larks can during my morning rounds, are down by an alarming thirty seven million across Europe and willow warblers are also down by over thirty million. The less we see and especially hear of these iconic birds, the poorer surely, is the quality of our lives. As this general decline has been taking place for many years now, should we perhaps be re-examining the long-term effects of some of the chemicals we use in modern farming?
Of one thing I’m sure; whilst Nature constantly demonstrates its amazing resilience, the advent of more and more technology, the manic drive for more and more wealth and the rapid pace of change, might well be threatening the very future of our skylarks and sparrows. More pertinently perhaps, it is also perhaps, threatening us. The warnings are stark but they are real. Sparrows may seem to be relatively unimportant in the general scheme of things. Yet they may well be sending us a message, loud and clear. Clean up your act!