The history surrounding and life of this commonly-seen bird is nothing short of extraordinary. And it’s a bird that has suffered serious declines in recent decades…
Scientific name: Passer domesticus
UK numbers: 5.3 million breeding pairs
Diet: Seeds and scraps
Not many parents would be alarmed if their children were invited to join a ‘Sparrow Club’. The name evokes a respectability and wholesomeness, in line with the Scouts, Guides or Brownies. Indeed, in the US the Sparrow Clubs are children’s fundraising groups and do a great deal of good.
Go back a couple of centuries, however, and the network of contemporary Sparrow Clubs here in Britain had a very different mission: to wipe the House Sparrow from the face of the Earth.
It seems hard to believe in our relatively eco-friendly days, but for centuries, House Sparrows were considered such a threat to the harvest that to kill one was part of a civic duty – indeed, the custom of bringing dead vermin to the churchwarden in return for a reward had been established since at least the Middle Ages. House Sparrows were also regularly eaten by the poor.
By the 19th Century, the killing of sparrows had morphed into a local sport. Sparrow Clubs formalised and incentivised a cull, by inviting adults and children to compete against each other, wiping out the birds in whatever way they could. There would even be annual dinners to award the winners, who often killed thousands. These clubs became part of village life, and some were still in existence as recently as the War Years.
In the long history of strife between people and bird, the slaughter of House Sparrows in our country has been extraordinary. Roger Lovegrove’s book Silent Fields details some of the numbers. Take this as an example: in the 1790s, just on the Isle of Wight, 275,000 birds were killed in the decade. In 70 years on the island between 1758-1835, just in one small parish of 11 square kilometres (4.2 square miles), people despatched 248,000. Lovegrove has also made a very rough estimate for the total cull for the whole of the UK. He reckons that between the years 1700 and 1930 it was, at the very least, 100 million individuals.
It is important to realise that, well into the 20th Century, a failed harvest could still cause serious financial hardship. And to be honest, however hard people tried, House Sparrows proved to be astoundingly resilient in the face of the onslaught. In the 1970s, the House Sparrow population was estimated at 12 million pairs, making it our commonest bird. The real winner in the competition between humans and birds was the sparrow itself.
Tough and adaptable
In some ways, this resilience epitomises the House Sparrow, a truly extraordinary species, tough and adaptable to its very core. A pair has been known to live 640m down a mine for more than a year. Sparrows in South America have hitched lifts on boats to conquer land upriver, and they colonised eastern Asia by following the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
This is the bird that was introduced to North America in 1851-72 and by 1910 had spread all over the continent. It is a bird that, in contrast to many of our other garden species, seems to survive even the harshest winter weather effortlessly. While other birds feed feverishly from dawn to dusk, sparrows seemingly spend much of their days simply gathering in groups and chirping noisily.
Sparrow life has its brutal side – although in reality it is probably no fiercer than another bird’s. This past week I myself witnessed the aftermath of what appeared to be a fatal fight between sparrows; with its assailants having been flushed away, the loser sat forlornly by the roadside at the bottom of a hedge, not alert enough to fly away, unable to lift its head. Male House Sparrows, most unusually, are known occasionally to commit infanticide; unpaired males removing the already hatched young of a rival, to instigate the breaking of a pair bond.
In sparrow society there is a stark contrast between the best and the also-rans which, in males at least, is so obvious that we humans can see it for ourselves. Males have badges of status, the black patches on their throat and breast. The amount of black varies considerably, and those with the most (usually 4-5 square centimetres) are the dominant birds.
They have extraordinary advantages throughout their lives. The black is a true reflection on their fighting ability, so in the winter they are dominant over smaller-bibbed males and so have better access to food, and therefore enter the breeding season in better shape. They start breeding earlier, thus getting territorial claims in first. They probably have bigger testes and, as a result have higher levels of testosterone, making them more aggressive, more likely to take part in communal chases and angrier in defence of their partners. They also defend better territories, usually with a convenient nest-hole included, which is safer for the youngsters and thus makes a great impression on females. They are the chosen ones.
One thing that can be said of sparrow society is that it effectively sifts out the weakest. Today’s living sparrows have all thrived within the severe strictures of their demanding social lives. They are über-birds, geared towards survival.
The great sparrow persecutions that lasted for hundreds of years in Britain left the House Sparrow almost untouched. It has always seemed that only a true catastrophe could dent their success. Until recently, their dominance seemed untouchable.
But all of a sudden, it wasn’t. After the 1970s, after 10,000 years of human-sparrow interactions, a chink appeared in the sparrow’s armour.
Between the years 1977-2010, the UK population sank by 69%. Declines were across the board, not just in towns and cities but in rural areas, too, and they also happened in parts of Europe, such as Paris.
For the first time, House Sparrows looked vulnerable. And also for the first time, House Sparrows became almost universally loved. In 2010, The Independent newspaper put up a prize of £5,000 for a scientific paper that could convincingly explain the decline. It hasn’t yet been claimed.
Despite this, evidence is stacking up. It seems that the problem in countryside areas is that first-year birds, trying to survive that stage between leaving the nest and breeding for the first time, cannot find enough to eat, due to that juggernaut known as agricultural intensification (especially the lack of winter stubbles.)
In towns, the main reason for the declines seems to be that breeding adults cannot find enough insects to feed their young in the stage between hatching and leaving the nest, which means that not enough youngsters even reach the first-year stage. Biological systems are always complicated, so there are, no doubt, a range of factors that are conspiring against House Sparrows.
However, the twin decline of sparrows in two quite separate habitats is ominous, and not just for our newly-loved street urchin. Something is so sick in our environment that it is doing what hundreds of years of extreme persecution couldn’t do. The House Sparrow is one of the very few birds that is truly dependent on human beings. Whatever is happening to the sparrow is potentially happening to us, too.
It seems we have found the way, at last, to curb a bird that lives on our coat-tails. The Sparrow Clubs couldn’t do it. Perhaps we should reinstate them, now, to help it to thrive instead. It could be more than our civic duty. It could be our means to survival.
Reference: Birds and People, by Mark Cocker
Where to see them
With a range spread widely across the UK, House Sparrows are mostly seen in towns, villages and farmland, and breed and feed near to people. Absent from parts of the Scottish Highlands and thinly distributed in most upland areas. Disappearing from the centres of many cities.