Sunday, 6 December 2015

helping house sparrows

The chatter of house sparrows (passer domesticus) from deep within a privet hedge was part of the soundtrack of my childhood.

Their large, untidy nests hung bedraggled from gutter downpipes. Sparrows were everywhere and we took them for granted. They colonised house martin nests, ate the crocus flowers and flooded down onto the lawn for discarded slices of Wonderloaf or Sunblest.

George Monbiot talks about 'shifting baseline syndrome'. An ungainly term but meaning that we look back to our childhood as the norm but this norm is not how it always was or has to be. My norm was of an abundance of house sparrows - and there must have been an abundance. I grew up on Nottingham's Clifton Estate which at the time was considered to be the largest social housing development in Europe. And during my childhood the estate of thousands of new homes (less than a decade old) was truly stuffed with these little birds.  From nothing, the house sparrows completely colonised the estate. Sadly, for more recent generations, it is their 'norm' that their new homes will not have the company of house sparrows. So the new generations do not feel the loss that I sense at the absence of these chirpy chappies*. And so there is not pressure to address the shortages because these new generations consider the absence to be 'the norm'.

a cock sparrer
Fast forward many years and I had a home of my own. And house sparrows, although less abundant, were there, squabbling in the pyracantha bush and gobbling seed on the bird table. Then our neighbours had their facias and soffits replaced and simultaneously it seems we lost the sparrows. The birds lost their nesting sites and we never saw them in the garden again.

This may sound an over-reaction but I was truly sad. I bought and sited a house sparrow colony box. But the only user was a lone great tit. The sparrows had gone.

Press the fast forward button again and we have our new home. And I hear (but rarely see) the house sparrows chattering deep within neighbours' gardens.

Time for action!

What do house sparrows need?

They need cover. They love to hop about in their social groups, chatting away but within the cover of an impenetrable shrub.
We have a long privet hedge. Cut 'tight' to create a compact boundary. Perfect for house sparrows.

They need food and water during the breeding season and for the rest of the year.

In the breeding season house sparrows feed their young on spiders and other invertebrates. Our garden is proving home to a myriad of spiders and creepy crawlies. Our wood chipping mulches are frequently shrouded in the webs of ground spiders. I'm hoping there's plenty of food there for the birds. If there isn't it would be possible to supplement their diet with live mealworms during the breeding season.

The winter food of sparrows is grain but the efficiency of our farmers in preventing spilt grain is to the detriment of all seed eating birds. We can help though. I'm providing bird seed in feeders close to the privet hedge and sparrows (notoriously conservative!) have slowly begun to come to the feeders. They are now with us each day, using the protection of the hedge, eating at the feeders or on the ground beneath as their family members cast showers of grain from the feeders above... So far I've counted six individuals.

Of course, sparrows like all living things, need water. 
four home house sparrow terrace
I have a small pond dug out near to the privet hedge (waiting for its liner) to help quench the sparrows' thirst in the hot summer months.

And sparrows need nest sites.

Our new home presents no opportunities for sparrows to breed. We've built it too well!!

Nesting boxes are the option here. Sparrows are unusual in that they like to nest close to other members of their species. Really close. Next door.

I've made and sited two house sparrow terraces. The new one (pictured) is a terrace with four homes on offer. In cedar to match the cladding. I've stuffed the boxes with leaves and straw so it feels like home the moment the birds peek in.

My dream is a score of house sparrows.

It's over to them now....

* As a footnote to 'shifting baseline syndrome', the naturalist Joseph Whittaker remarked at the turn of the twentieth century that neighbouring Blidworth Dale rang to the 'crex crex' call of corn crakes. Sadly, corn crakes were lost as soon as mechanised harvesting came along and are long gone from Nottinghamshire. We have to travel to distant Scottish islands to hear them calling now. How I would love Joseph Whittaker's 'norm'.






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