“We Only Get Sparrows”-Appreciating the Unfashionable Garden Birds

“We only get sparrows in our garden; nothing interesting.”

“Our feeders are always mobbed by starlings; how do we get rid of them?”

“Why don’t we get goldfinches on our feeders?”

These are just a few examples from conversations I’ve had with members of the public as a wildlife volunteer and they pop up on a regular basis. It is estimated that around two thirds of households in Britain put out food for the birds. This is a vital helping hand, particularly during Winter when natural food sources are scarce and birds become reliant on the peanuts and suet balls hanging in our gardens. These handouts are quite often the difference between surviving the cold months or perishing. This knowledge in itself is reward enough for putting out food but, of course, there is also the joy of being able to watch from the kitchen window as the birds cling to the feeders, sparrows squabbling with blue tits, blackbirds hopping across the grass and pecking at the ground and the nearby robin keeping a beady black eye on proceedings.

Naturally, which species of birds we get in our gardens depends heavily on the local habitat, whether that be rural, suburban or urban; each environment brings its own speciality. I’m very lucky with where I’m currently living, in rural West Sussex, and looking out into my back garden usually yields quite a variety of feathered visitors, including great-spotted woodpeckers, nuthatches and dunnocks. Of course, all gardens are different and living in more suburban areas will be more likely to host sparrows, starlings, feral pigeons and gulls. These species are just as important as the “trendy” species. When someone asks me “how can we get rid of the starlings?” I feel overwhelming frustration. I point out that, although it might not seem like it in their garden, starlings are actually on the red list and have seriously declined in recent years. The same applies to sparrows.

Female House Sparrow

Female House Sparrow

According to the RSPB, house sparrow numbers decreased by approximately 71% between 1977 and 2008, earning themselves a spot on the red list. Studies have also shown a 66% decline in starling populations since the 70s. Both of these birds are still fairly common in the typical suburban garden and tend to feed in sizeable flocks, which may have given many people the impression that these birds are thriving and of no conservation concern. The opposite is true, in fact, which is why I tell those that complain about only getting sparrows and starlings in their gardens that they should feel extremely lucky.

Part of the reason house sparrows are struggling is because the have suffered a loss of habitat. They prefer to build nests in crevices in houses (hence the name) and thick vegetation such as hedgerows but over recent years, these locations became increasingly unavailable, with many hedges being replaced with fences and gardens becoming more manicured and less “wild”. Cutting back vegetation has also decreased the number of insects around, the sparrow’s main source of food. If these charismatic little birds are flocking to your feeders, it could be considered a good indication of the healthy state of the local habitat. Starlings, too, have lost much of their traditional nesting habitat with the introduction of modern building practices. There are significantly fewer crevices for them to build their nests in so the remaining population relies heavily on the provision of nest boxes.

We can’t pick and choose what species show up on our feeders and tables. Yes, it can be annoying when we put a fresh batch of seed out only for large numbers of jackdaws or pigeons to descend upon it and consume it within minutes. However these species, though relatively commonplace in most gardens and with pigeons even considered pests by many, are just as important as the colourful finches, long-tailed tits and woodpeckers some would rather see in their gardens. The plumage might be more interesting to look at but that shouldn’t mean those with more drab feathers should be overlooked. Having said that, have you ever looked closely at a starling’s feathers? Their markings have the appearance of finely-detailed embroidery and when the sun catches them, their blacks and browns transform into an iridescent mixture of purples, blues and greens. Hardly what I would call a boring bird.

I think it’s safe to say that some birds are considered more fashionable than others. Personally, when I look out of my window perhaps hoping our resident nuthatch might be fussily picking his way through the seed, and I see instead a small group of blue tits, I don’t feel disappointed or annoyed that they are blocking the way for more interesting birds. It’s important to appreciate any wild animal that chooses to visit our gardens. Each species has its own important role to play in the natural world and if we choose to put out food for the birds, we should expect to see a variety of takers, not just the trendy ones. The next time you see a host of house sparrows squabbling over seed or a chattering of starlings perched on the fence, know that you are looking at a declining species and that by providing them with food, you are giving nature a helping hand.

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Emily Summers
I am a Zoology student, wildlife volunteer, blogger, artist and aspiring conservationist. You can read about my experiences with nature on my blog The Art of Nature www.artofnatureuk.blogspot.com

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1 Response

  1. 10th January 2016

    […] Second: “We Only Get Sparrows”-Appreciating the Unfashionable Garden Birds by Emily Summers […]

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