The Wren Wildlife Group, London Wildlife Trust and Wild Wanstead have compiled a list of 10 species at risk of local extinction. In the third of a series of articles looking at each species in turn, Nicola Steele offers tips for saving our sparrows
The RSPB’s Big Garden Bird Watch 2021 revealed that sparrows remain the UK’s most frequently spotted bird. Yet their numbers have declined dramatically in recent years. Wanstead’s streets must have been alive with their noisy conversations when hedges and front gardens were the norm, and the species was able to flourish on our doorsteps.
House sparrows are social birds and live together in big groups called colonies. They build their nests in the eaves or crevices of buildings, and in ivy, bushes and hedges. Nests are made from a variety of materials like dry grasses and feathers. They lay around three to five eggs and will have at least two clutches a year. The chicks are fed on regurgitated insects.
Sparrows are on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern and are a priority species under the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework. Around 60% of house sparrows have been lost since the mid-1970s, and declines have been particularly acute in large cities like London. Research is underway to find out why. Starvation of chicks due to a lack of insects may contribute to the problem. High nitrogen dioxide levels from traffic pollution have also been linked to declines. There are colonies of sparrows peppered around Wanstead. There is anecdotal evidence that some may be increasing from a low base, but in other locations, they continue to be lost as people remove the hedges and other places where they live. If you’re lucky enough to live near a colony, sparrows can seem ubiquitous because of the number and the energetic and noisy nature of the birds. However, there are huge gaps around our local area where you walk for long periods without encountering a single sparrow; this would likely have been unthinkable until recently.
How to help:
- Provide food and water for sparrows in your garden. They’ll happily visit bird feeders, but if you can, feed them mealworms or waxworms, especially when they’re rearing their chicks in late spring and early summer (April to August).
- Make your garden a haven for insects – that means one thing, lots of foliage. Large areas of paving for drives and patios, along with plastic grass, are disastrous for city insects and wildlife more generally – dig some of it up or cover it with planters to re-green your plot. Ground-dwelling insects, such as beetles, generally benefit from dense vegetation, including evergreens. Flying insects need flowers across the year – look out for ones with the Plants for Pollinators logo. Find ideas at wildwanstead.org/star-plants.
- Other great habitats for insects are long-grass areas, mini wild flower meadows, leaf and log piles and bug hotels. Never use slug pellets or pesticides.
- Plant hedges and shrubs to provide shelter and foraging habitats for sparrows, such as hawthorn or viburnum.
- Have a bird bath – sparrows love a communal splash-about when it’s warm.
- Install a sparrow nest box terrace.
- It’s really important to protect colonies, as house sparrows can take a long time to return to areas from where they’ve disappeared. If you’re lucky enough to have sparrows living nearby, work with your neighbours to ensure everyone understands how important it is not to damage their nest sites.
For more information about the 10 species under threat of extinction in Wanstead, visit wnstd.com/the10