Not exclusively British of course because they are found all over the World but according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds the population of house sparrows in Britain has fallen by nearly 70% in the past thirty years, it is rarely seen in London anymore and there are fewer in urban back gardens and this decline in numbers is now so serious that the sparrow is on the RSPB red list of conservation importance.
Their web site explains that the UK’s birds can be split in to three categories of conservation importance – red, amber and green. Red is the highest conservation priority, with species needing urgent action. Amber is the next most critical group, followed by green. Also on the red list are the Thrush and the Starling but happily on the green list are the blackbird, the blue tit, the wren and the robin.
While watching the birds I noticed that some of the sparrows looked very different indeed and when I consulted my book of garden birds I realised that I hadn’t been paying enough attention to detail because there were three types of different bird that I had been generally referring to as sparrows and it turns out that one isn’t even a sparrow at all! It’s a Dunnock!
First of all (picture 1) there is the tree sparrow, which is smaller than the more common house sparrow and quite different in appearance. It has a chestnut brown head and nape (rather than grey), and white cheeks and collar with a contrasting black cheek-spot. It is on the red list and is only really found down the east of the country and not in Wales or the southwest at all. I am really pleased to see them here because based on the Common Bird Census, there was a decline of 85% in numbers in Britain between the two breeding periods (1968-72 and 1988-91), which was the largest decline of any common species during this period. Little is known about the factors affecting numbers of tree sparrows, but their recent decline has occurred at the same time as decreases in the numbers of other farmland birds which share its diet of grass, wildflower and cereal seeds, and also feed their young on insects and it is therefore possible that its decline is due to changing agricultural practices.
Next (picture 2) is the good old house sparrow which is much more numerous and found all over the British Isles. They are noisy and gregarious and are cheerful and welcome visitors to the bird table and the feeders. There may seem to a lot of house sparrows and their numbers are estimated at thirteen million, but the worrying fact is that thirty years ago there were twenty five million and the population in London has declined by a whopping 70%. That’s something to be concerned about! No one really knows why but some of the suggestions are that new house building methods and materials make it difficult for sparrows to find suitable nesting sites and the current fad for overly tidy gardens also takes away some of their natural habitat. So I say forget about clinically tidy gardens and leave some wildlife friendly area in the garden and welcome the sparrow back! I think the RSPB will agree with me.
Finally (picture 3), there is the Dunnock, which I am certain I must have seen before but am embarrassed to say that I have previously failed to identify him correctly. He looks like a sparrow but he isn’t, even if sometimes he is referred to as the hedge sparrow. It is a small brown and grey bird and quite quiet and unobtrusive with better manners than the squabbling sparrows, I have often seen it on its own, creeping along the edge of flower beds or amongst the shrubs, moving with a rather nervous, shuffling gait, often flicking its wings as it goes. They are more edgy and aware than the sparrows and often disappear abruptly when disturbed.
I know a bit more about sparrows now and a lot more than I did in 1961 when I wrote about them in my school Nature Studies exercise book…