Seen any sparrows lately?

Continuing the theme of birds and whether there are more or less of them this year, I thought I would bring your attention to a worrying report from the RSPB that is highlighting the plight of the common house sparrow. Numbers of house sparrows have declined in the UK by 68% in the last 30 years (i.e. they have more than halved in my lifetime).

The reasons for this are unknown, but it is thought to be related to a lack of food for the chicks resulting in lower numbers leaving the nest and a higher mortality rate in those that do fledge. Why the lack of food? The reason is thought to be our disappearing gardens, the reduction in house sparrow numbers being more pronounced in towns and cities than in rural areas. The increase in decking and patios, the removal of hedges, the addition of the dreaded leylandii and the obsession with short grass have all reduced the number of insects inhabiting our gardens. This, coupled with our chemical warfare on all things creepy-crawley, has reduced the food available to the sparrows.

But, I hear you cry, shouldn’t this affect other garden visitors such as blue tits and robins? I think that it has, but it is just that the sparrows used to be so populous that the reduction is more noticeable. Pairs of sparrows need to raise at least five young a year to keep the numbers up, this means having multiple broods and more mouths to feed.

The numbers of sparrows in our garden fluctuates throughout the year, but I know there were a couple of pairs about and that there were two successful broods. Will that be enough? I am not sure, I have only seen the occasional sparrow in recent weeks, but it may be that they are off somewhere else at the moment. (A few weeks ago we had about 8 goldfinches at a time in the garden, then none for weeks, but lots of greenfinches and chaffinches; I guess it depends on whether there are other food sources around.)

So, what can we do? I fed the birds mealworms for a couple of months this year (admittedly they were aimed at the blue and great tits and I was a little annoyed at the time by the gluttony of the sparrows) but this can be expensive if rewarding. The RSPB recommends leaving patches of grass unmown for insects to congregate in and planting certain shrubs, one of the best being honeysuckle which provides food for birds and bees for a lot of the year as well as having the advantage of being easy to grow.

To read more about the decline of the sparrows see the BBC news pages and the RSPB website.

I will certainly be monitoring the sparrows in my garden from now on, let me know how the sparrows in your area are faring.