I have House Sparrows nesting in a gap between my guttering and the tiles of my roof. The male bird was watching me carefully as I cut the lawn yesterday, chirruping a warning to his mate and his brood, noisily insinuating that I might like to give up and go back inside. There are a few in my garden, dashing themselves into hedges and shrubs as I walk up the path, springing about on my mossy, poor quality lawn. I find them good value, irascible little headcases, far too strident for their size.
We all know them, of course. There is a pretty poor poem, written about 1920, by the naturalist and birdwatcher W.H. Hudson, called The London Sparrow. It is a Romantic, often naïve and sentimental piece, describing a man thinking back to his days in the country and the wildlife he knew there, and considering the grime of the city, where he finds comfort in the fact that at least he has the call of sparrows to ease his troubled soul. He sees it as a noble little creature, Nature’s “one witness” in the industrial turmoil:
And thou, O Sparrow, from the windy ledge
Where thou dost nestle creaking chimney-pots
For softly-sighing branches; sooty slates
For leafy canopy; rank steam of slums.
And he considers it for quite some time. Verse upon verse, stanza upon stanza. It is, I’ll be honest, a little wearing, but it’s interesting nevertheless to use this as a pointer to the ubiquity of passer domesticus for so many generations of Londoners and indeed for almost all other parts of urban and suburban Britain. Indeed, it’s only really in the central Highlands of Scotland that you might expect to struggle to find this most familiar of species.
In his less florid observations, when Hudson is in fact a very attentive and knowledgeable guide, he describes (Birds in London, 1924) how lunch in a London park could never be a lonely experience because the sparrows would very soon come and find you. As a kid, I can remember putting seed out and barely making it back to my spotting post before a swooping cohort of the little buggers had whisked in to hoover up every speck of the bounty. My Dad used to delight in the horror we would show when recounting his war-time rationing tales, most notably of catching sparrows for the dog’s supper, an upended cardboard box propped by a stick as the trap, shaking them around until dead and then throwing them, bones and all, into a massive frying pan before serving them up as a gloopy, greasy mess.
Ask anyone what the most common bird is and here, at least, they will invariably, lazily, offer the House Sparrow. And they will be completely wrong. Today, the outlook for the species is more than surprisingly bleak, it is alarming. Recently, it tumbled toward the red alert status on the RSPB’s list, a flag raised primarily because of its sharp decline in numbers over the last 25 years. A decline in some places above 60%, in others even greater than that. It is possible now to visit some hidden, leafy city squares and be completely untroubled by them. Feral pigeons, collared doves, starlings, yes; sparrows, hardly.
Why? There is no easy answer. An exhaustive study by De Montfort University, dovetailed with other independent surveys, seems to suggest a variety of factors, combining to make life for the House Sparrow very perilous indeed. Predation by cats, loss of food to other newly-dominant species, disease, a loss of nesting sites, all of these things were considered, and are very important, but it seems that the inability of chicks to survive to the moment of fledging is key. Diet here is a major pointer, and being fed vital nutrients essential to the birds’ growth. With that focus, the role of insecticides (sparrow chicks thrive on aphids) and car emissions would appear to be serious contributory factors to the young simply dying in the nest. But these are by no means definitive answers; more work needs to be done.
In 1958, the Chinese took against the sparrow to an extraordinary extent. They considered it one of the Four Pests (along with rats, flies and mosquitoes) and decided, simply, to eradicate it. The population was mobilised and a bizarre campaign of killing and disruption of habitat and activity undertaken. Birds were killed, nests destroyed, a programme of disturbance entered into whereby sparrows were kept flying out of fear for so long that they fell from the air, unable to roost, dead from exhaustion. I can remember seeing footage of Chinese kids banging pots and pans together beneath the massive roosts on buildings so that the damn things could not rest. Two years later, the process was halted. The penny dropped that the sparrows aided crop production by killing insect infections and in subsequent poor harvests an estimated 30 million people perished.
If all of our sparrows vanish from our gardens and parks, I doubt even the most militant of campaigners would warn of a similarly catastrophic result. Of course not. But how remarkable would Hudson find it, less than a century later, if he could see the predicament for his clamorous subject. Even more peculiar, and so very wide of the mark, in the final verse of the poem he extolls the longevity of the bird, forecasting that “Nature’s one witness” (I am growing to like that phrase) would last, long after the sound:
…of human feet unnumbered, like the rain
Of summer pattering on the forest leaves,
Fainter and fainter falling ‘midst the ruin,
In everlasting silence dies away.