Saving the sparrow

Saving the sparrow

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There are few birds more familiar to the British public than the sparrow. Indeed, with well over five million calling the UK home, they are among the most numerous and commonly seen of the country's species.

However, the numbers do not tell the full story. Both the House Sparrow and Tree Sparrow have undergone drastic population falls in recent years, meaning the species are classed as Red Status by the RSPB. Essentially, if the decline continues at the current pace, both species could become rare sights across the UK in the not-too-distant future.

House Sparrow numbers have declined by more than two-thirds since the 1970s, making Britain's current population of 5.3 million pairs a fraction of what it once was. Meanwhile, Tree Sparrows have suffered even more, with an estimated drop of 93 per cent between 1970 and 2008.

How can you help?

So what can you do to give these cheerful birds a helping hand? Some good news from the British Trust for Ornithology shows that leaving out food for sparrows can make a difference.

Data from the organisation's latest Garden Bird Feeding Survey shows more sparrows have turned up at feeding stations over the past two winters. Indeed, winter 2014/15 saw Tree Sparrow numbers at suburban garden feeders reach the highest level since records began back in 1970.

Meanwhile, average visitors to rural garden feeders reached a five-year high. When it comes to House Sparrows, rural feeder numbers have hit the highest level since 2005 and since 2009 in suburban areas. This could be significant, as lack of food in winter due to agricultural intensification has been highlighted as a potential important factor in both species' decline.

Clare Simm, organiser of the BTO's survey, commented: "The boost in Sparrow numbers may have been helped by the recent mild winters that we have experienced, but garden bird feeding stations could be extremely important. It will be interesting to see how they fare in the coming winter."

If you'd like to leave bird food out for sparrows, seeds and peanuts are readily eaten by the birds and will make your garden an attractive destination for plenty of other species too. Sparrows also eat insects and you can ensure you garden is well stocked in this regard by planting plants that will attract creatures such as bees and butterflies (sparrows enjoy eating caterpillars).

For centuries, sparrows have nested and reared their young in the nooks and crannies of houses and other buildings. However, modern construction methods mean there are a far fewer of these spaces open to the birds. You can help sparrows find a home by installing a nest box that is specifically designed for the species.

House Sparrow

Identifying your sparrows

Not sure which type of sparrow is visiting your garden? The chances are they are House Sparrows. This species' population outnumbers its Tree counterpart by around 25 to one and is much more commonly seen around human habitation. The UK's 200,000 Tree Sparrow pairs are mostly concentrated in the Midlands and the eastern half of the country. They are relatively scarce in the south-east and tend to stick to rural areas. House Sparrows, meanwhile, can be found across the nation.

You can identify Tree Sparrows by their smaller size and the fact males have a brown-topped head, compared to the former's grey. Male and female Tree Sparrows have the same plumage, while House Sparrows have distinct differences between the sexes, with females possessing more nondescript markings.

The male and female House Sparrow and Tree Sparrow are shown below:

Male House SparrowFemale House SparrowTree Sparrow

All images from iStock