The results of the 2023 RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch have the House Sparrow at number one, the commonest bird in UK gardens for the 20th consecutive year. The results for Sidmouth gardens compiled for the Sid Valley Biodiversity Group by Charles Sinclair placed it at second.
The commonest bird for all habitats, not just gardens, is the ubiquitous wren. The definition of common is based on the number of breeding pairs and so this excludes the large influx of overwintering visitors such as Starlings and Blackbirds which arrive from Eastern Europe.
Although originally a native of Europe and Asia, the House Sparrow also now has the reputation of being the most common bird in the world. Achieved with more than a little help from humans. We have a schizophrenic relationship with the House Sparrow, when common we dislike them and when rare we miss them. So it was with the early settlers in Australia and new Zealand who were homesick for their familiar sparrow and so introduced it. In the USA they were introduced to New York, supposedly to control caterpillars on their trees, and in fifty years they had spread all over the USA and in to Southern Canada. Similarly, they have found their way to South Africa and South America, and so are found on every continent except Antarctica. The most universally familiar bird in the world.
In Britain there was a continual increase in numbers from the start of settled agriculture in Neolithic times until the twentieth century. From the 1940s, when there was a change from horse power to motors, there has been a steady decline. Initially, this was discarded as being irrelevant, but in the 1980s House Sparrows disappeared altogether from many cities and large tracts of farmland, and became more a bird of suburbs and villages. They are clever birds, not only in obtaining food, but also being suspicious in habit. Often they will suddenly vacate a site if food is short, nest sites disappear or predators arrive. At a previous house of mine a thriving colony disappeared overnight when one bird was taken by a Sparrow Hawk. The eerie shriek it gave when caught, if human, would be described as a scream.
House Sparrows nest in small colonies spread over a group of buildings and will return to the same site each year. The nest is often where the roof eave meets the vertical wall. We have enabled one or two pairs to nest in our bungalow each year by simply removing the chicken wire that had been stuffed in this gap by the previous owner. They like to make their nest in a short tunnel and do not like the drop down, tit style nest boxes. To make the tit box successful for a House Sparrow, the hole needs to be 32mm diameter and a strip of wood 1cm in cross section should be placed on the inside just beneath the hole to allow them to scramble out. Sparrow hotels with three nest boxes together can be purchased but they are a gimmick and a good statement of intent but rarely work. Although colony nesters, they do not like to be that close to each other as they enter and exit. The hotel may succeed if tunnels rather than drop down boxes are used and the entrances open in different directions.
Once a male has attracted a female to a nest site using his exuberant range of cheeps and chirps, the two pair for life. They defend the site aggressively, and may attack other species nesting in their territory and sometimes destroy eggs and nestlings. They have a bad reputation for taking over House Martin nests before these birds arrive back from from Africa. However, sparrows are subject to disturbance themselves during egg laying or early incubation. When the young hatch they are fed exclusively on insects for the first four days and continue to require some insects after that. I once had a professional size polytunnel and sparrows came in every day to take the trapped flies.
Although common, the House Sparrow is becoming less so, not only in Britain but all over the world. Their previous breeding successes allowed them to survive persecution as grain eating pests, but the reduction in nest sites and insect food is causing a decline. Could it be possible that one day we might sit on a bench in a country park to eat our lunch and we may miss the pleasure of the appearance of a cheeky, chirpy sparrow with its mischievous ways.
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