The morning was bright, the wind was still and sitting in my room, all that we could hear was the noisy and endless chirping of a certain garden bird from the hedge outside. Watching them happily, the noise did not bother me, in fact, I was more disturbed by the thick Sheffield accent that floated across the room and blocked out the sound.
‘What is that bloody racket?!’ It said.
Rolling my eyes I shook my head and pointed out that this was not ‘a racket’ and was simply a group of house sparrows feeding outside. As he is not exactly a nature ‘enthusiast’, I further pointed out that these birds are in fact in decline in the UK. To which came the reply:
‘Can those ones decline a bit quicker?’
He was of course joking and attempting his favourite past time of trying to wind me up. So, if you have not already guessed, what was this species that had us bickering like school children? The house sparrow.
This weekend, just like many, I took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch. Although I am happy to say I did record a number of house sparrows visiting the garden, I also noticed that those numbers are fewer than they have been in previous years. I can remember a time when I was younger when the number was in the twenties, in fact, there was often such a large number that I was never sure if I had counted correctly. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case and this was reflected in the number I counted this year, which was a meagre 8.
To many, house sparrows are still a familiar sight in our gardens and though we know they are in decline, it is surprising that they are on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern. Often, many of us barely ever see those species that find themselves on this particular list, so to have one of them visiting our garden is a little strange. However, I am aware that their presence will no longer be a familiar sight for many, after all, between the years of 1977 and 2008, house sparrow populations are thought to have decreased by 71%! Although research is continuing, the reasons for their decline, particularly in urban areas, is still ongoing. Declines in rural house sparrows is thought to be related to changes in agricultural practices, such as the loss of winter stables and increased measures to protect grain stores as well as reduced numbers of nesting sites.
So, how can we help this noisy little bird? Well, house sparrows are far from fussy and will live wherever there is food and a suitable area to nest. So, got any room for a nest box? Get involved! But don’t worry, you don’t need to be Michelangelo, as a simple yet sturdy nest box will do for these feisty little characters. Just make sure that the size of the opening to the box is the right size, with 30-32mm in diameter being ideal for house sparrows. As I am sure you know, the best place for a nest box is somewhere sheltered, either on a tree or a wall at about head height. But it will be time to get out those compasses, because the best direction for a nest box is north-east to south-east facing. Why? No, it’s not because they are simply being picky, but rather because south facing boxes are at risk of becoming far too hot on warm days, whilst west facing boxes are all too happy to welcome in the wind and the rain.
So, in short, put up a nest box? Yes, but there is more you can do. Food is the obvious choice, with seeds and fat balls being helpful over the winter, not only to house sparrows, but to every bird, so what else? You can of course continue to feed birds over the spring and summer, and another way to do this is to plant more flowers in your garden. Insect attracting flowers to be precise. Chicks in the nest will feed almost entirely upon invertebrates, so a diverse range of plants and longer areas of grass will get your garden buzzing with bugs! Furthermore, climbers such as honeysuckle and ivy and species such as hawthorn can also provide additional nesting sites.
Or, if you really want to push the boat out, you can create an area for dust bathing. Dry soil in an exposed and sunny area, which is still near to shelter is ideal for house sparrows as they often take dust baths to remove dead skin and lice from their feathers. So, if you’re lucky, on a hot day, you’ll see these little characters ruffling their feathers happily in the dry dirt.
With a little perseverance and patience, you may have your own colony of house sparrows in your back yard!
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