Since we have been covering common birds in this run of MBOW, it seems only right to turn to our most common of all; the House Sparrow. Yet its perennial status on the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch list masks a shocking decline.
While it remains officially our most common domestic bird, the size of the population in the UK has dropped 70% in my life time, 20 million birds at a rate of around one an hour. Over-managed gardens and changing building practices all contribute to this. Ensuring nest sites and availability of food year-round can help mitigate, and the decline has at least stabilised in the last few years.
On a global level the House Sparrow is currently far more secure, the most widespread wild bird thanks to accidental introductions across the world. This global prominence is also reflected culturally and you find reference to the House Sparrow amongst the Ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans. As soon as we started growing crops, the House Sparrow started hanging around us. It crops up as a metaphor for lusty behaviour in the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, and in folk songs and nursery rhymes.
That association with crops has been a blessing and a curse for the sparrow. In many countries they have been intensively persecuted by poisoning as they were seen as a threat to food security. In the UK in the 40s and 50s, and more recently in communist China under Mao.
When not seen as a pest they have been seen as a delicacy, and sparrow clubs used to trap them for sparrow pie. Even today huge numbers are illegally shipped dead and frozen from China into Europe for food.
I always think House Sparrows are why people think birds ‘chirp’, as that is a good description of the noise they make in calling to each other from dense hedges where they often hang out. It can be an incessant and irritating noise, but as it’s increasingly rare it’s one we should enjoy.
Incidentally, in writing this I discovered March 20th is World Sparrow Day. So there is one to note.