The humble House Sparrow

04 April 2021 | Posted in Guest blogger , Birds
The humble House Sparrow
© Derek Middleton

By Tom Hibbert

Birdwatcher and content officer for The Wildlife Trusts

House sparrows may not be the most colourful bird in the UK, or the most impressive singer, but they’ve long been one of our favourites, because they live in such close proximity to people. Their friendly little faces are a common sight in many parks and gardens, chirping away from a hedgerow or happily hopping around outdoor cafes and picnic areas, hoping to swoop in and steal any neglected scraps.

When I first took an interest in birdwatching as a student, house sparrows were a constant companion. I’d stand at the window of my tiny attic room, watching their lives play out amongst the rooftops of the town. First, a male perched proudly on a gutter, cheerfully cheeping away. He found a partner, and I watched as they carried grass and feathers into a hole in the brickwork of the adjacent building. Then, one day there were young sparrows clinging to the roof tiles, the bright yellow gape at the base of their beaks still visible, gifting them a perpetual frown.

House sparrow calling from Wildlife Trusts on Vimeo.

A decade later and I’m in a different flat, in a different town, but still delighting at the antics of sparrows. I may not have a garden, but I’m lucky enough to have a few sparse bushes beyond my window, which are often alive with these busy birds, preening and chirping as they wait to visit the feeders fixed to a nearby fence. For me, that’s one of the great appeals of the house sparrow – they can bring a touch of the wild into some of our most developed areas.

As lockdown after lockdown severed so many of my usual connections to nature, cutting me off from the forests and nature reserves where I spend most of my free time, these feathered friends were a vital link to the natural world, and so often a lifeline for my mental health. I watched them flit and flirt in the tangles of a scrawny bramble bush, and smiled at the scruffy juveniles snoozing in the sun.

Sleepy house sparrow fledgling (c) Tom Hibbert from Wildlife Trusts on Vimeo.

House sparrows are still one of the UK’s most common birds (in fact, they’re the third most common breeding bird, with around 5.3 million pairs), but they are a lot rarer than they used to be. According to the latest report on The State of the UK’s Birds, since the late 1960s we have lost around 10.7 million pairs of house sparrows. This drastic decline has earned them a place on the UK Red List for birds, which essentially flags them as a species in need of urgent action.

There’s not one single cause behind this decline, but an accumulation of issues across different habitats. As our older buildings have been renovated, and homes improved, there are fewer cracks and gaps in which sparrows can squeeze their nests. As gardens, streets and roadsides are tidied, we lose valuable habitat for the insects that house sparrows eat, an issue compounded even more by the use of pesticides. Changes to the way land is farmed are also linked to declines in rural sparrow populations.

But there is hope for house sparrows, with signs of slowing declines and even a slight recovery in some populations in recent years. If we can find more space for sparrows, offering them opportunities to nest, and help our insect populations to recover, our hedges can once again be full of their joyful chirps.

You can help them at home by leaving parts of your garden to go wild, encouraging the insects that they need to feed their young. If you have sparrows visiting, a row of nest boxes or a special ‘house sparrow terrace’ near your eaves could give them a place to nest – they’re gregarious birds that like to nest close to other sparrows. You can also help by supporting campaigns to help insect populations recover, like The Wildlife Trusts’ Action for Insects, because without these our insect-eating birds don’t stand a chance!

Comments

  • Charles Pinckney:

    08 Apr 2021 12:04:00

    Good stuff. I am helping having planted 10,000 trees recently and at least 3 miles of new hedges, much of which I have cut and laid in 2020 and 2021. I now run the farm as a special Wildife Habitat and aim to keep planting every year!! ATB CP

  • Adrian Figgess:

    08 Apr 2021 14:00:00

    I don’t have a farm – but in one corner of my garden, I have had fifty native English hedges planted: ten each of hazel, blackthorn, dog rose, beech and hawthorn. That should provide a block of bird flats! Elsewhere in the garden, I have several piles of rotting wood, aka bug hotels galore. Looking forward to some action!

  • Adrian Figgess:

    08 Apr 2021 21:10:00

    I don’t have a farm – but in one corner of my garden, I have had fifty native English hedges planted: ten each of hazel, blackthorn, dog rose, beech and hawthorn. That should provide a block of bird flats! Elsewhere in the garden, I have several piles of rotting wood, aka bug hotels galore. Looking forward to some action!

  • Peter Cullen-Crouch:

    08 Apr 2021 21:29:00

    Lovely article. We have three nesting places for our wonderful spogs, a nest box I put up that has been used every year for six years, which I clean out every year in the winter, a cavity under the eaves, and a hole left by plumbers who didn’t brick up properly after fitting an outlet pipe from our first floor bathroom! All three currently being investigated by potential couples! But sadly it is all too clear that garden birds are decreasing rapidly. Our Song Thrushes have left our neighbourhood for over four years (is it over use of slug pellets?) and this year I have not seen any Dunnocks nor heard any Wrens. Is it predation by cats? Lack of nesting sites? (Gardens too tidy?) Or lack of food – invertebrates (pesticides?) I think they all play a part.

  • Mike Cope:

    10 Apr 2021 11:07:00

    My Mother lives in suburbs that were once Leafy. But recently more Shrubs & Trees have been removed resulting in the decline of the Sparrow population. Fortunately there are one or two pockets of Greenery that haven’t been ‘sanitised’. She has plenty of Shrubs & Trees and the Garden where I live isn’t overly tended. I installed a Bird Feeding Station, in the centre of the Lawn, at the end of Winter, with Energy Balls, Seeds & Peanuts. Birds have only just ventured onto it. The Energy Balls are disappearing Daily! But a “pecking order” is now established ~ with Crows in priority, followed by Starlings, then Sparrows. A couple of Wood Pigeon wait for scraps that fall on the Grass, or that I put out under a Bush. The Garden is on the Seafront, so we don’t leave Food in plain-sight for fear of marauding Gulls. If people are interested in Wildlife I urge them to get Bird Feeders, as I now get a ringside view & have even seen Urban Foxes sniffing round.

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