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Help wanted for the ailing house sparrow

Friday 02 February 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard frets over the fate of the common or garden house sparrow, once Britain's most numerous bird, which has now been "Red listed" as a species in dangerous decline

BACK in the mists of time, when the dinosaurs had just stopped roaming the earth and I had to attend Sunday school ever week, I vividly remember being told that God saw every sparrow that fell. Back home, I wondered how He could cope because the roofs of our outbuildings were knee deep in the little blighters. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of them.

The ordinary, common-or-garden sparrow is no strutting celebrity of the avian world. Birds of prey with their swooping dives and vicious talons; colourful kingfishers and glittering goldfinches; majestic swans and soaring swallows; these are the glamour-pusses of the skies. Your old cock sparrow rarely gets a look in the feathered fashion stakes.

Help wanted for the ailing house sparrow
Help wanted for the ailing house sparrow
Photo: www.bto.org

But this perky little fellow has gone into one of the steepest population dives in British ornithological history. In some areas its population has halved in just a few years. That means the deaths - or rather, non-births - of millions of creatures.

The situation is so bad that it has now gone into the conservationists' Red Book, the list of species whose future prospects are on the critical list unless something it done to turn it round. And this week, one of Britain's premier conservation charities, the British Trust for Ornithology, issued an appeal for public help in doing just that.

February 14, St Valentine's Day, marks the beginning of National Nest Box Week, when householders are asked to buy or make nesting boxes in their gardens for species like the house sparrow and the blue tit. The reason: there is a nationwide shortage of starter-homes for young avian couples which like to live in holes.

As woodland near towns is constantly felled to make ay for new building developments, dying trees full of agreeable little niches are in critically short supply. Gardeners, spurred on by TV programmes, fell trees and large shrubs the minute they look a tad poorly. So another source of supply is drying up.

Television is also making matter worse in another direction: housing makeovers. Young people moving into old properties tend to "do them up" - and that often means filling in holes under the eaves which may have been nesting spots for sparrows for generations. And modern building techniques leave no holes whatsoever in new houses.

There also is another problem caused by modern lifestyles. With more people living alone, and anti-fouling laws being applied with vigour on urban streets, the cat is believed to have overtaken the dog as Britain's most popular pet. And although many cat owners are in denial on this, their pets kill hundreds of thousands of sparrows every year.

So what to do? The BTO has plenty of advice on how we can help all wild birds, which give us hours of pleasure and cost us virtually nothing. Our old cock sparrow might be a dowdy little fellow but his antics - particularly at this time of the year as mating approaches - can fascinate as we stand at the kitchen sink or prepare for summer in the potting shed.

So please put up a nest box or, better still, a nest terrace - which is a long, thin box with several compartments so that sparrows can breed in small colonies as they had done for hundreds of years, ever since they set up home as our neighbours! For more information, see www.bto.org

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