Sparrow nation – what went wrong?

Oh how times have changed. In 1887 J.H. Gurney wrote in a paper entitled “The Misdeeds of the House Sparrow”: “I would sooner see two or three chaffinches … eat the crumbs … than any number of sparrows…” In 2000 “The Independent” is offering a £5,000 reward to the first person who can come up with a reasonable explanation for their decline and the British public ….. In 1744 every Parish in England had an anti-sparrow organisation paying for the destruction of nests. But this is not the first wave of changing opinion. When introduced into the states “Birds lovers attended to the needs of sparrows hoping that the feisty little foreigners would repay the kindness of the Atlantic crossing by destroying infestations of insects in New York trees. Thirty years later the sparrow had few friends left.”

Whatever your opinion of them, sparrows it seemed were survivors in man’s troubled relationship with other animals. They liked us and the way we live and they happily and plentifully lived alongside picking up the debris of our wasteful lives. In the 1950’s sparrow guru Dennis Summers Smith estimated that there were around ten million house sparrows in Britain, – or one sparrow for every five people (now probably more like one sparrow for every 20 people). Introduced into the United States in 1850, the sparrow had by 1836 occupied a million square miles. In the subsequent year alone it occupied another half a million square miles. Their supposed ousting of some other native species was seen as a direct parallel by some of the ousting of native Americans by Europeans.

Sparrows have followed armies across the Sinai desert and across Russia into Murmansk. In 1990 the first house sparrows were sighted in Japan. Building winter nests they are able to live in cold places and they now occupy one quarter of the world’s land surface – from north of the Arctic circle in Norway, and in the tropics of Amazonia and Australia. Sparrows are nature’s survivors. Like the pigeon and the rat we take them for granted – worse – despise them for their voluptuous ubiquity; their everywhereness. They have become part of the human landscape, so why have they suddenly, at least in Britain, opted out the deal? What went wrong? The answer is that nobody knows.

It is one thing to have a clear plan as to a problem and its solutions. Environmentalists rail against cars for causing global warming, or the destruction of the Amazon for driving species extinct. We know where to target our anger and our action. But when there is no explanation – when a creature which thrived among us one week, goes pop the next, it is somehow disconcerting, cloudy, unnerving. Perhaps there is some terrible malaise in our civilisation of which the sparrow is the siren. Perhaps London’s streets just have one hundred thousand mobile phones too many – who knows.

Sparrows evolved in Africa and spread out with humans and agriculture across Europe. Grain eaters, they thrived on the new habitat made available to them by the human penchant for wheat. They arrived in Britain at least ten thousand years ago. I was told by a bird fanatic in California that sparrows (and starlings) were introduced into the States by a homesick British aristocrat who wanted to have every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays in his garden. In fact they were brought in to control insect pests, but it’s a great story. Native or not the sparrows has become part of the British psyche, our way of life, and heritage – they flutter in our hearts.

Sparrow Behaviour

Sparrows reflect something of the way life should be led. They are resourceful, intelligent, sociable, incredibly dynamic, persistent and wary of man. When studying sparrow mating behaviour for my PhD, I would sit in a hide watching birds, hour after hour. I saw how they coordinated their activities, following each other’s lead. Highly gregarious, my sparrows would sing in group-sessions – one dominant males would begin, followed shortly by another male and then another until the cacophany was deafening. Then as if heralded by some avian conductor (or the arrival of a sparrowhawk) they would abruptly fall silent, quiet as flying mice. Bernard Maclaverty called it a “boring electric sound”, but to me sparrow song is elliptical and neat, suitable for this unpretentious bird: cheep cheep cheep. Sparrows if raised by a canary or exposed to piano music at a young age, will sing more complex songs, but under normal circumstances their refrain is adequate. Cheep, cheep, cheep: But sparrows are no longer two a penny. They have become expensive, rarified, are developing an as yet unknown mystique. They are in trouble and no-one knows why.

One hypothesis for the sparrows decline proffered by Dennis Summer’s Smith is that sparrows are committing mass suicide. The remaining sparrows are lonely, and losing the will to live sends populations spiraling downward. Certainly they like to do things together. The mad rush and scramble of birds you see in the bushes in spring or early summer may well be a group of ten or more male sparrows simultaneously attempting to woo a single fertile female. They perch around her displaying, wings dropped, chest puffed. If one is lucky he will get to mate and sparrows have serious staying power. They can mate more than 30 times in a single minute.

Although they live as married couples during breeding, sparrows are not entirely faithful. One genetical study found that 10% of young in the nest are fathered by a male other than the one feeding them. The father was most often the bird in the next door nest. Another study found the roughly same rate of infidelity among humans in Canada. Although considered dull brown birds, in fact, the male’s black brushstrokes are rather beautiful and seem to speak volumes about him. Female sparrows prefer males with bigger black patches on their breast, a trait which has been connected with more testosterone, better nutrition and better fathering. Perhaps sparrows are even more like us than we would like to know about.

Sparrows have a deeper fear of man than many birds whose lives are far more distanced from ours. Even a ladder leant against the barn beside their nest box can give them the jitters. Sparrows it seems have precise mental maps of their environment and they are wary of change – of any spanners humans might throw into the works. And sparrows learn fast. Mist netting sparrows on my first day of field work, a misty March morning, I caught 35 birds – this is going to be easy I thought – no trouble. The second time, five days later, same place, I caught 12 birds, the third, zero. Sparrows are nobody’s fool. It might be easier to repeatedly catch falling stars. Not surprising really when we consider their history with man: thus perhaps they have lived alongside humans, constantly adjusting and updating so as not to be caught out by any of the strange new manifestations of our civilization, until now.

Of course the only course of action under such mysterious circumstance is to investigate with some serious detective work – otherwise known as science, and the RSPB is on the case. Working away appropriately in the heart of England, the hit-squad consists of Guy Anderson, Nick Wilkinson (tree sparrows, Rutland) and Dave Hole (House sparrows, Oxford), headed up by Jeremy Wilson.

Sparrow Science

A declining population may mean one of two things: Either the sparrows are not producing as many young, or they are not surviving so well as adults. We already know that most sparrows have short, fast lives. Only half of fledglings live more than two months and only one fifth survive to breeding age; (incidentally, the oldest recorded house sparrow lived beyond his 11th birthday), but have their chances declined even further recently? When I meet Dave at Wytham Farm, he is sitting on the path sidings weighing a nestful of naked sparrow babes: their future literally in his hands. Nest checking and careful measurements provide data on sparrow productivity and may gives some clue as to why some birds survive and others do not. Dave’s data suggests that in fact sparrows are not having trouble producing enough chicks as their average family size (about 5.5 young per female), is the same as it ever was, but more investigations are underway.

Survival then may be the problem and the prime suspect is lack of food. In another 1945 anti-sparrow publication advising how best to eradicate the sparrow, one H.N. Southern observed that sparrows eat a lot of waste corn. Without this source of food: “one might expect … that it would decrease in numbers.” Modern farms are much cleaner than they used to be, and many farmers report that fewer sparrows have been spotted since they sealed their grain stores. Have we inadvertently been too effective in our cleaning up campaigns, not simply displacing the Sparrow, but wiping it out completely?

One way of telling whether the birds aren’t getting enough food is to feed them. Comparing the survival of birds over winter with and without provisioning may show how food affects numbers of birds making it through the winter. But it is not enough to know how many birds there are in total, Dave needs to know whether individual sparrows have made it through the bleak months. This is because if there are more birds on the farm when food is provided it may simply be because more birds have come in from surrounding countryside to feed there. Fred and Mavis sparrows may still have popped their clogs, but it seems that all is well. In order to tell Fred sparrow from Ron sparrow, Dave puts rings on their legs – each bird having an individually styled combination of colours – red blue, red green, etc. That way Dave knows that for sure, Fred sparrow’s made it, while Ron doesn’t appear to be around anymore. Dave, alongside RSPB’S Andy Purvis, has spent a lot of the last two winters trying to repeatedly re-sight sparrows. The results are lurking in computer databases yet to be analysed, but there is a suggestion that providing extra food is a key to improving their lot.

Dave’s work doesn’t end with leaning out of his car window with a pair of bins trying to catch a glimpse of bird’s legs. He is also a dab hand in the lab. Dave has spent much of the winter months in an Oxford University laboratory looking at the DNA of a sparrow. By looking at their genetics, Dave may get a handle on whether the decline in sparrows has caused a reduction in the mixing of sparrow populations. This may cause problems for sparrows later as inbreeding is generally not a good idea.

At Rutland, aided by Nick and a whole host of volunteers, Guy’s field work on tree sparrows is very similar. He handles the chicks carefully, shading them with his hands and is keen to get them back in the nest as quickly as possible. Always rarer, Tree sparrows have declined more catastrophically than house, by 80%. The RSPB research is a work in progress. Neither Dave nor Guy can give anything like a definitive answer about why sparrows are doing so badly, but they come closer than almost anyone in the world. “Its probably the usual suspects” says Guy – “intensification of agriculture; pesticides; cats….we’ll keep you posted”


So times change. On the fields around Wytham, bird-watching veterans remember gatherings of 6000 sparrows in early Autumn. The wheat fields are now all but silent. The renaissance of the sparrow in the hearts and minds of the British public reminds us that life in our midst, however quotidien is precious to us, and that conservation is not just about big, fierce, rare animals in far off places. Sparrows, by virtue of their demise, have flown, wings blazing into the media limelight over the past months. Being an expert on sparrows suddenly makes you a desirable dinner guest. But regardless of the whims and winds of popular opinion, lets hope the sparrow’s ingenuity with the help of the unswervingly bird-loyal RSPB will save them.