The Decline Of The House Sparrow

At one time wherever you were in London you would almost be guaranteed to see flocks of  house sparrows squabbling and chirping on pavements, fences, trees, park benches or in urban back gardens. The Cockney sparrow was as much a fixture of London as pie and mash and pearly kings. London football team, Southwark Borough FC have the Cockney sparrow as their crest to represent the club’s urban location.

House Sparrow

In fact sparrows used to be so commonly seen in London that in the East End “Hello me old cock sparrow” is still used as a form of cockney greeting. Sparrows didn’t seem to be bothered by the noise, traffic or crowds of people in London. But the chances of seeing those large flocks of sparrows now is greatly diminished.

And it is not just in London that sparrows are disappearing. Along with many other common British birds, Sparrows have declined in numbers so much so that they have been put on the iUCN Red List of threatened species.

In the 1950s the UK sparrow population was estimated at 9.5 million which increased to 12 million in the 1970s. In the 1990s the numbers started to fall and the population is now estimated to stand at just 6 million. It is not fully understood why the numbers have decreased so much. Some of the explanations given include lack of food and suitable nest sites and an increase of predators such as magpies of squirrels.

In the 18th Century sparrows were so prolific that many parishes in Britain had “Sparrow Clubs” set up to destroy as many sparrows as possible because of the destruction they caused to crops. Bounties continued to be paid to sparrow catchers until the 19th century when it was realised that this method of culling was not working. Even now the most ardent bird lover can have a love-hate relationship with the sparrow. Despite being very sociable birds they are also known for destroying crops and some people see them as pests.

House Sparrows are native to Europe and Asia but have colonised throughout the world and in the US they are known as English Sparrows to distinguish them from native species. Sparrows are now the most widely distributed bird on the planet and in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch they are regularly the most counted British garden bird.
The male house sparrow has a grey crown and nape, edged with dark brown on the sides of the head and a distinctive black bib. The larger the male’s bib, the better he is at attracting a mate. Upper plumage is a flecked with brown, buffs and greys.

Female sparrows are much duller with tawny upper parts and a cream coloured stripe above the eye.

Sparrows are mainly seen in urban areas and near arable farms. A flock of sparrows will often draw attention to themselves by their noisy, squabbling behaviour particularly when fighting for food. They are most commonly seen in the south and east of the British Isles.

House sparrows breed between April and August and prefer to nest in colonies of 10 to 20 pairs. They like to nest in holes and under roof tiles or if there is a shortage of holes then they will build a nest in a thick hedge. Sparrows lay up to 6 eggs which incubate for about 12 days. Sparrows can raise 3 or 4 broods during one breeding season.

Sparrows will naturally feed on insects during the summer and grain during the winter although they will eat most kinds of foods provided by humans like bread, grated cheese, fat and specially formulated seed mixes.

To help reverse the decline of House Sparrows you could provide them with sparrow flats – special nest boxes that allow them to breed in colonies.

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