I have said on this website before that one of the ironies of taking a bird watching holiday to Extremadura in 2004, home of an amazing array of birds, was that I came back intent on increasing our Northiam house sparrow population. At the time the peak count in my garden was a paultry 6 birds, whereas the garden of the hotel I stayed at was full of them, and numerous other species of course. OK, there was a white stork nest on the roof that contained a small nesting colony of house sparrow, but I came away thinking that food was probably the key.
Since then I have fed the birds consistently through summer and winter, and have experimented with different brands to get the version that seems most attractive. For a few years now I have been using Bucktons Premium Wild Bird Food, which seems to go down well. We have also installed 2 of the terraced sparrow nest boxes, giving 6 nest holes in total, and I grow a fair proportion of our lawns long in the summer. It is noticeable how sparrows use the longer grass to hunt for insects in the spring. Now I cannot claim that this last option was for the sparrows, as I was doing it already for other wildlife, but I am sure a bit of flower-rich meadow helps to provide them with insect food when the chicks need more protein.
So, the results. Within a year or two the numbers of birds appeared to have picked up considerably, and I have hard data for the past three years as I have been submitting weekly records to the BTO Garden Birdwatch. In 2008 the peak count of sparrows over a 20 minute period was 27 birds. Last year this increased to 35, and this year 49. Over the same three years the mean count of sparrows recorded in the garden during the last 15 weeks of each year has risen from 15 birds in 2008 to 18 last year and 24 this season. Clearly the species is benefitting locally.
My gut feel is that it is the regular feeding throughout the year that is responsible for this increase, although I strongly suspect that the provision of insect-attracting meadow vegetation helps in the summer. As for the nest boxes I am not so sure they have helped as in most years we have had just one nesting pair, and you can watch birds leaving the garden after feeding to visit other nest sites. This year we had two nesting pairs, perhaps further evidence of the increasing population. It is also noticeable how valuable cover, such as dense hedges and a patch of hazel scrub at the bottom of our street are, attracting large numbers of roosting birds in the late afternoon.
So, good news locally for this declining bird. There may be even better news on a national scale, although this may, as yet be just a blip. If you click on this link you can see the weekly trend in the numbers of gardens in the Garden Birdwatch scheme reporting this bird across the UK. And a depressing story it is with a steady decline in numbers since the scheme began, until the last twelve months. The graph shows that numbers of birds reported at the end of 2009 increased compared to the previous year, and have done again this year. Similarly the peak summer count and the low autumn count were also higher in 2010 relative to the preceeding year. It is far too early to claim a change in the fortunes of this bird, and it might just be a blip due to favourable breeding conditions this year, but the message from our garden is that if you target this bird for regular feeding locally you can make a big impact on numbers.
Just one other curious feature of this bird is how frustratingly parochial it can be. One thing I noticed in 2005, was that when we set up bird feeders at the old English Nature Office at Wye, whilst other bird species took to them almost immediately it took almost three months for the first house sparrows to use them - this involved a journey of about 50 m from a nearby house where they were regularly seen. In our own street, neighbours about 80 m away reported to me it took several years before house sparrows started to visit bird feeders in their garden.