Sparrer, sparr, spadger, spug, spuggie, spur, sprig. The Sparrow is so entrenched in the British psyche that over time its name has become warped and reworked by regional dialects across our isles; each county staking claim to these little birds with distinct, endearing names, a reflection of their endearing nature. In years gone by and to the detriment of our humble spug, Sparrows were so often seen bombarding feeders in our gardens that they were consequently all too easily overlooked. Now, in plain view, the Sparrows have begun to disappear.
Specialists in thriving around places of human habitation, from the sun-bathed cities of India to the frost-bitten towns of Russia, Sparrows are possibly the most recognisable bird on earth. In Britain, even those impartial to the natural world or uninitiated into the world of wildlife would struggle not to know exactly what a Sparrow is, whilst in Egypt Sparrows have been immortalised through hieroglyphics. Sparrows even get a mention in the Gospel of Matthew, the opening book of the New Testament, which may go some way to explaining their universal reach.
There are two species of Sparrow native to the UK; the gregarious little House Sparrow of which most of us are familiar thanks to their frequent bustling visits to our gardens, parks, suburbs and inner cities. Their short, incessant chirping song is instantly recognisable as one of the overwhelming sounds of spring in our gardens. Singly each concrete-grey and chestnut-brown bird displays a character rarely matched, enquiring and curious. When small flocks descend upon our urban plots and cling upside-down from feeders, dance merrily fence to table-top or hop heartily across our lawns they show their bullish side and other, more timid garden birds will barely get a look-in. Our other species, the more illusive Tree Sparrow is a farmland bird that lives shy of most human contact – seemingly a British quirk as Tree Sparrows across the rest of Europe will happily live and nest in towns and suburbs in much the same way as the House Sparrow. Differentiated by their brown cap and black cheek spots, unlike House Sparrows the males and females sport the same plumage. They look cleaner, crisper even, their plumage a warmer tone. Rarely is a Tree Sparrow found without its tail cocked, active, busy. Rarely still.
Declines in Sparrow populations have been noted across Europe, China and India but none so dramatic as our own. Since 1970 Tree Sparrow numbers have declined by a severe 93% whilst our House Sparrows have fared little better, declining by 71% in the same time. Both now find themselves firmly on the RSPB’s red list. I have spent two months searching high and low across the edgeland and the surrounding countryside for the brown-capped Tree Sparrows but to no avail. They have completely vanished. Given that the Midlands is a stronghold for these charming birds that is a worrying sign. The story is the same across much of the Country. In the South West of England, Wales and Northern half of Scotland the Tree Sparrow is effectively extinct or at best an occasional rarity. Like many of our farmland birds the rise in intensive farming practices and the abandonment of flower-rich field margins is a major culprit in their demise. Though predominantly seed-feeders, in Spring and Summer the chicks are reared on insects and invertebrates. Without wildflower meadows, scrub and natural field margins it is thought that the dilution of our farmland insect populations has led to a higher rate of chick mortality. The same applies to our House Sparrows. In my home town of Leicester a study found that with supplementary feeding of mealworms alongside the usual seed feeders, fledging success rose by some 55%. Though the availability of food does seem to play a significant part, studies suggest that there is far more at play here and other factors have yet to be discovered or properly understood.
There is a phrase among British birders; ‘a little brown job’. A colloquial, catch-all term to describe the numerous birds in Britain, who’s lacklustre beige plumage makes them difficult to identify or tell apart from one-another and perceivably dull or uninteresting to watch and admire. Perhaps this hasn’t helped their drastic decline going largely unnoticed. Our familiarity with Sparrows, especially the House Sparrows, has created a sinister but all too common trap. Unintentionally we bypass them, take them for granted believing that they are safe, ever-present. Not going anywhere any-time soon only to suddenly realise the opposite is true.
So what can we do to try and reverse the damage? How can we save our Sparrows and preserve their place in the British psyche? Whilst Tree Sparrows may be beyond our reach as individuals, the ongoing battle to find an equilibrium between productive, cost-effective farming and habitat preservation is vital. I do not want to see farmers out of pocket any more than I want to see our Sparrows vanish and so communication and education are fundamental in establishing trust and passion for both conservationists and the farming community. Financial support such as Government grants and better use of our current farming subsidies is equally as important. Simple changes in the way we manage our field margins, leaving stubble after crop harvests and letting be dead or decaying trees that provide the holes in which Tree Sparrows almost exclusively nest are all small things that can make a dramatic difference.
For House Sparrows we have a bigger say and implementation of certain measures is in our own hands. Providing supplementary feeding of insects and mealworms during the breeding season is a sure-fire way to improve breeding success. We could all be a little more untidy (suits me, I’m lazy) in the garden, leaving areas of long grass or corners to re-wild – these areas sustaining far more insect life than our perfectly manicured lawns or tarmac. There is no doubt that our obsession with paving and hard landscaping has affected the balance of our urban and suburban ecology, gardens now equate to a huge amount of our countries manageable, unfarmed open space. They can and do provide a wealth of micro-habitats and corridors on which our wildlife find their way around, spread and colonise. The rise in concrete takes away these habitats and cuts off wildlife corridors leaving species stranded. Natural planting with native species of single blooms to attract pollinating insects is another positive change we can make. As a gardener I know there is an insatiable appetite for double-flowers, often harbouring significantly less pollen or nectar and in some cases none at all. The search for ever more weird and wonderful exotics and non-natives to plant in our borders benefits our local wildlife very little. Though gardens are often our canvas to be painted, we could be more considerate of what we are offering to our wildlife, after all what is a garden if not full of birdsong and the buzzing of bees? Look carefully and you will find just as many beautiful native flowering plants that can rival any in the world.
There is one particular present I have asked Santa for this Christmas. A Sparrow terrace. With home renovation and new-build estates the nooks and crannies in which Sparrows choose to nest beneath the eaves are in short supply and so providing an alternative has an easy and immediate impact. House Sparrows like to nest in loose colonies and so a Sparrow terrace, strategically placed under the guttering makes a perfect nesting place. Most terraces have 3 or 4 holes, if each of those is occupied and an average 7 eggs are laid then I could be the proud guardian of 21 chirpy little chappies come the summer and that’s just the first brood! Quite the snip at twenty quid. Is there anybody on your shopping list notoriously difficult to buy for? (Wink wink).
If this hastily written post can convey only one thing, let it be this: Next time you’re gazing out over the garden and a ‘little brown job’ lands upon a fence post or clings acrobatically from your finest peanut feeder; See beauty. Feel pride. Be endeared. #SaveOurSparrows