The humble sparrow has been declining rather catastrophically in recent years; and this is probably due to the usual reasons of how we humans live our lives.
For the house sparrow, perhaps the bird most closely tied to our urban living, this does make them especially vulnerable to changes. Increasingly our homes are tidy and even almost hermetically sealed with few nooks and crannies for roosting or nesting birds.
In the wider countryside harvests that once boosted sparrow numbers to the point where early twentieth-century farmers employed ‘sparrow catchers’ to reduce seed predation, have now changed. Towns and cities formerly powered by horse-power with seed and hay spilling out everywhere are now choked by motorcars. So the list goes on.
Anyway, apart from places to nest what do sparrows require? One key part of their habitat is dense shrubbery in which they can congregate noisily, and indeed, if you walk past a dense bush or stretch of hedgerow you may hear the combined chirpings of a hundred or so excited house sparrows.
Remove the shrubbery, as happened in Sheffield’s Meersbrook Park the other year, and you lose many of the sparrows too. These bits of habitat are generally off the radar for most ecological surveys and yet are so important for one of our declining bird species.
The other thing sparrows need is a good, regular supply of suitable food, preferably mixed seeds. My brother–in–law, Peter Steward has created what I describe as a ‘house sparrow heaven’ with a large feeder with multiple seed-dispensers protected by wire-mesh netting.
This keeps woodpigeons and grey squirrels out but allows smaller birds in; the house sparrows love it! Goldfinches and starlings also seem to feed enthusiastically in this fast-food outlet for the smaller birds.
Peter has also added a three-hole sparrow nest-box and so have I. However, the problem with this appears to be that the sparrows ignore it and the blue tits move in; which is nice but not what was planned. It does seem the once-common house sparrow may have turned a corner and populations stable and maybe increasing.
Professor Ian D. Rotherham, of Sheffield Hallam University, researcher, writer and
broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues