How to take the declining sparrow under your wing

The house sparrow shares with us a long-standing bond, but is under serious threat. What can we do to help? Liam Creedon reports

The house sparrow – cheeky, chirpy and everywhere. Or at least, that is how it used to be.

For this bird, that for thousands of years has made its home and carved out its fortunes by our side, is in deep trouble.

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Passer domesticus is slowly, slipping out of view. In the last 30 years the bird has undergone a dramatic decline both in its urban stronghold and in the countryside.

The relentless chatter of the birds as they enjoy vigorous dust baths while simultaneously roughing up previously impeccable flowerbeds is a key component of the British back garden.

We can’t allow this sparrow spectacle to disappear but what we can do to arrest the decline?

To answer these questions we need to examine our long relationship with the house sparrow.

The bird’s name comes from the Anglo Saxon word “spearwa” and its antiquity hints at our ancient shared bond.

Since we first started to cultivate our environment these adaptive and resourceful birds have been drawn to us both as an unwitting supply of food and nesting sites.

The range of local names, “spuggie” in parts of Yorkshire, “spurdie” north of the border, and sometimes “spadger” elsewhere reveal how successful the house sparrow has been across the length and breadth of the UK.

It took advantage of our wasteful ways, gorging on spilt grain and discarded crumbs and it used the nooks and crannies around our homes to build elaborate sparrow tenements.

So successful was the bird that in the pre-war years the population swelled to tens of millions.

This growth made it a nuisance. The bird’s grain-stealing habits irked farmers and its eggs and young were widely collected by country folk for food well into the 1940s.

In the 19th century trophies were awarded to whoever in the parish killed the most birds. Despite these predations, sparrow numbers were hardly touched.

The first population decline came between the two World Wars when horses gave way to cars.

It meant the end of two souces of food – spilt horse grain and the seeds deposited in dung.

In the 1970s, things took a steeper downturn. In the 30 years from 1978 the population fell by a staggering 71 per cent.

Various theories have been put forward as the cause. Among them are, overkill by sparrowhawks, habitat loss, rising pollution levels and falling insect populations on which sparrow chicks depend.

The Independent newspaper offered a £5,000 prize to find the cause of the decline in its “Save The Sparrow” campaign, but more than a decade later, the prize is still unclaimed.

House sparrow populations are still falling but moves are finally afoot to give the bird a fighting chance. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has recently discovered that the birds prefer homes with gardens rather than other bits of urban space such as parks. The house sparrow’s long-term survival may just depend on us giving an old friend a home.

Assisting sparrows in your garden

The BTO suggests that to create the perfect sparrow des-res, the diameter of the nest box entrance hole must be around 32mm.

If you plant bushes such as barberry and cotoneaster in your garden, you can provide the additional shelter much loved by sparrows.

Planting these bushes also brings an additional wildlife bonus.

During winter the berries on the cotoneaster will attract hungry thrushes and if you’re lucky the spectacular waxwing.

The barberry could attract rare insects such as the barberry carpet moth.