My back garden is small, but I have done my best to make it wildlife friendly. Rather than plant things to see what grows, my approach to garden maintenance is to leave mostly alone and see what turns up
In a few short years blue tits have nested in the bird boxes and frogs have colonised the pond. In summer, a multitude of butterflies and bees are attracted by the honeysuckle and buddleia.
My greatest joy, however, is the ivy hedge that I have let go – a towering wall of green that provides a haven for nesting blackbirds and a raucous colony of house sparrows. Lately, as the temperate autumn has shifted to an overcast winter, the sparrows have been a wonderful source of entertainment and activity that brightens the day.
Some mornings I step out and the noise from these streaky, chestnut-coloured birds, hidden from sight in the dense foliage, seems to carry across the whole neighbourhood. An old collective term is a ‘quarrel of sparrows’ but mine do not just seem argumentative – their chirps and chips also resemble a joyous crescendo of gossiping and nattering, with each bird talking over the other to get a word in edgeways.
When I was a boy I took little notice of sparrows. They were too plentiful to be of interest and their markings too bland compared with the more colourful tits and finches who visited my parents’ garden.
But lately, spurred on by the antics of this collective, I have developed a real affection for my neighbouring spadgers.
If I have forgotten to fill my birdfeeders, I see them moving across the lawn searching for insects and grubs, but as soon as the feeders are full, they arrive like a miniature aerial display team (The Red Sparrows anyone?), swooping in from all angles and criss-crossing each other’s flight paths.
And boy, don’t they get through some seed – emptying out the feeders in no time at all.
This voracious appetite, coupled with their abundance of numbers, was a reason why years ago sparrows were regarded as harmful pests who were taking too much of the farmers’ grain.
In the eighteenth century, in many parishes Sparrow Clubs were formed with the intention of hunting these birds and destroying their chicks and eggs. Prizes were handed out to those with the most kills. Grainy photos showing scores of sparrows trapped in large nets are testament to how long this practice persisted.
Famously, in the mid-twentieth century, Chinese leader Mao Zedong declared the sparrow one of four pests (along with rats, mosquitos and flies) that should be eradicated to enable the Great Leap Forward – his vision of agrarian efficiency and industrial growth.
Sparrows were driven to near extinction in China as people destroyed their nests, and banged pots and pans so the birds could not settle and died of exhaustion. But with all the sparrows gone, there were no birds to eat the nymphs of locusts, which ended up destroying the crops. It was a policy that was partially responsible a man-made ecological disaster, which saw millions of humans die of starvation. Eventually, China imported 250,000 sparrows from the Soviet Union to build up numbers again.
Today, house sparrow numbers are again a concern but not because there are too many – but because they are in serious decline.
Since the mid-1970s, the UK house sparrow population in rural England has halved while numbers in towns and cities are down by 60 per cent. Incredibly, the house sparrow is now red-listed as a species of high conservation concern.
According to the BTO, a reason for this deterioration in rural areas is agricultural intensification including loss of winter stubbles and less spilt grain.
In urban areas numbers have been driven down by, among other things, a loss of green spaces, and modern roof fascias and tiles, which offer less opportunities for nesting.
It is clear that house sparrows, for so long, so plentiful, and a bird that lives among us like no other, cannot be taken for granted. The next time you see one, take some time out to wonder at its liveliness and surprising beauty – the grey cap and dark chest bib.
In my research for this piece, one wonderful quotation from nineteenth century American naturalist Henry David Thoreau stood out. In his masterpiece, Walden, he wrote: “I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulette I could have worn.”