House sparrows

10th February 2008, Sunday

Four years ago I paid a visit to the fantastic Extremadura region of Spain and was blown away by the birdlife.  One of the lasting impressions (surprisingly given the array of unusual and colourful species on offer there) was a bird I had taken for granted in the UK, the house sparrow.  We stayed in that well-known country inn used by birder’s, the Finca Santa Marta, near Trujillo.  Here they were abundant, contrasting with how few we had in our garden.  Not a bird feeder in sight, so the countryside clearly gave them all that they needed.  What was particularly interesting were the nesting colonies of this bird making use of cavities in white stork nests on the roof of the hotel – see http://www.fincasantamarta.com/staff.htm – one of the nests is shown on the photo on the right, above the staff, somewhat precariously balanced!  So, on my return home, disappointed with the meagre half dozen birds inhabiting our garden in Northiam, I resolved it was time we developed our own house sparrow action plan!

Since then I have been targetting this species. We installed one of those 3 in a row terrace nest boxes on the side of the house. OK, it does not have the appeal of a white stork nest on a chimney, but there is not a lot I can do about that. (Anyway their acidic droppings apparently do nothing for the mortar between the bricks!). And for the next four years the result has been….. 2 blue tit nests!

Terraced sparrow nest box

It soon became apparent that these birds are quite fussy about food and that the seed used at that time attracted finches but not sparrows. A seed mix from a wildlife charity was of no interest to them, but I have experimented with different brands and there are others they seem to particularly favour which are now few consistently. The one I use at the moment is a high energy mix, with a considerably wider range of seeds and numbers of birds have rocketed. Last spring, which was unusually warm before the mid-summer deluge, seemed to be good for sparrows and by June we had sizeable flocks feeding in the garden, peaking at a best ever count of more than 40 birds.

One thing I have noticed about them is that they can be surprisingly slow to catch on. Its not just our nest box, but at the Natural England offices at Wye we set up bird feeders with the same high energy seed mix. They were almost immediately adopted by goldfinch and greenfinch, but it took almost 3 months before the first house sparrows visited them, despite the fact that birds were present only 100m away all that time.

And to continue that theme, this morning, excitingly, but 4 years on from their purchase, I have just seen a male house sparrow with a beak full of vegetation enter the terrace nest box for the first time, and then sit chirruping on the roof. Look’s like I won’t have to put in that order for an old nest from Storks R Us!