Country & Coast: Roger Ratcliffe

One of my favourite collective nouns for birds is ‘a ubiquity of sparrows’ but, alas, the house sparrow to which it refers is no longer as ubiquitous, or widespread, as it used to be.

Those people who are still lucky enough to see them on their bird feeders probably live in towns, cities or anywhere near old buildings where there are still plenty of crevices for them to build a nest. But in the gleaming new residential suburbs of well-maintained housing developments the once-common house sparrow is usually an infrequent visitor to gardens.

To publicise the species’ plight, Friday has been designated World Sparrow Day and organisers say the bird’s decline should act as a warning that we should never take any common species for granted.

About ten years ago I realised I wasn’t seeing the humble ‘spadge’ very often and it turned out that in Yorkshire, as elsewhere, there had been a sharp fall in its population. According to the results of the annual Big Garden Birdwatch survey organised by the RSPB and British Trust for Ornithology the species has suffered a 62 per cent decline since 1979. Between 2012 and 2013 alone there was a fall of 23 per cent in numbers sighted in South Yorkshire gardens, marginally more than the 20 per cent reduction in West Yorkshire.

It used to be the commonest bird around farms and villages in cereal growing areas like the Yorkshire Wolds and Vale of York, where there was a huge food supply and a plethora of eaves and open barns to support large numbers of nesting pairs. They were so numerous, in fact, that parish councils formed Sparrow Clubs to cull them. There are records of threepence a dozen being paid in the Scarborough area in 1809 because of the damage to local crops, while at Worsbrough near Barnsley a halfpenny each was paid for 488 dead birds. Bounties were still being paid by councils at Micklefield and Wakefield in 1872.

But over the past half century the increased efficiency of grain harvesting has left less food in the fields for them to eat, and so many birds moved to urban areas. Its close cousin, the tree sparrow - known in some parts of Yorkshire as the red-headed sparrow or rock sparrow - has always been less widespread. It is not so urbanised, and sadly it too is in serious decline, its population crashing by 87 per cent in the last quarter of the 20th century.

And so the message this week is, let’s appreciate our two native sparrows while we still can.