Drive to boost tree sparrow numbers

One bird to look out for on winter bird tables, particularly those in rural gardens and on nature reserves is the tree sparrow.

They are a much neater looking bird than the house sparrow and it is quite easy to tell the two apart.

The cock house sparrow has a grey top to its cap but both sexes of tree sparrow sport a bright chestnut red cap.

Also, the tree sparrow's bib is a neat jet black while the house sparrow's is much less sharply defined and another distinguishing feature is a small black patch on the house sparrow's white cheeks.

Both house and tree sparrows have shown huge declines in numbers.

House sparrows, once a very familiar bird everywhere, have fallen in numbers from about 12 million pairs in the 1970s to six million now, while the tree sparrow has declined by 94 per cent over the past 25 years and it is now red listed as a bird of high conservation concern.

But over the past few years there has been a slight upturn, helped by schemes to provide wider field edges and winter stubble fields for them to feed in.

But as yet it is unclear what impact this winter's severe weather will have had on numbers. Tree sparrows on remote areas of farmland may have suffered but those which increasingly rely on bird tables in winter should have fared better.

In North Yorkshire, the Claro Tree Sparrow Project, run by birder David Watkins and others, has been trying to help their recovery by replacing lost hedgerows and providing nest boxes for them, as well as promoting the retention of more winter stubble fields.

The project is supported by Harrogate Council, Harrogate and District Naturalists Society and the Harrogate RSPB group.

The project team would appreciate reports of tree sparrows visiting your feeders and your opinion on whether numbers have increased or decreased during this winter so far on

In some areas tree sparrows were seen in impressive numbers this autumn, particularly around Natural England's Lower Derwent Valley Reserve between York and Selby while they are seen in good numbers at the RSPB's Bempton Cliffs reserve.

Tree sparrows are seen in huge numbers in Asia, where they largely replace the house sparrow and in China reached such numbers they were wrongly seen as a threat to the nation's grain supplies.

In April 1958, Chairman Mao launched a "sparrowcide" campaign in which three million people were mobilised to shoot, trap or simply drive the sparrows to exhaustion by harassing them with gongs, drums and long poles.

The grain harvests fell in the next few years, probably because the sparrows were not there to feed their young on invertebrates.

When the campaign was abandoned the sparrows quickly recovered to their previous numbers.

Up to three long-eared owls have been seen at the Saltholme reserve on Teeside over the Christmas break, while a bittern is also on the reserve.

A dark-breasted barn owl, a form of barn owl found in Europe, was reported at Fairburn Ings and Skelton Lake further up the Aire Valley on Monday.

Up to seven hawfinches have been seen in Clumber Park, North Nottinghamshire while nearby a great grey shrike is on Budby Common.

A drake red-breasted merganser is with goosanders on the River Calder next to the Calder Wetlands, Wakefield.

Four adult Mediterranean gulls have been seen in the Holbeck Hall car park on Scarborough's South Cliff, while a juvenile great northern diver is still in the harbour.

CW 1/1/11