Bird census exposes 75-year demise of sparrows

A A A

When he counted them first, in 1925, the house sparrows of Kensington Gardens numbered 2,603. When Max Nicholson watched as they were counted again on Saturday, there were eight of them.

When he counted them first, in 1925, the house sparrows of Kensington Gardens numbered 2,603. When Max Nicholson watched as they were counted again on Saturday, there were eight of them.

Seventy five years on, almost to the day, the grand old man of Britain's environment movement, now 96, returned to the London park where as a young man he carried out the UK's first scientific bird census, to see it repeated. And he could only marvel at its most remarkable finding.

Saturday's count, by the Royal Parks Wildlife Group, illustrated more vividly than anything has yet done the near-extinction of the house sparrow, mysterious and unexplained, from Britain's city centres. While numbers of robins, blue tits, blackbirds and many other small songbirds have stayed more or less stable over many decades, the bird that once outnumbered all others has now virtually gone.

"It's quite amazing," Mr Nicholson said, leaning on his walking stick and surveying a sparrowless landscape from Peter Pan's statue to the Albert Memorial. "I thought the sparrow numbers might go down, but I never, never imagined a decline like this. I never thought I would come back in a new century and see it." He laughed. "But then I certainly didn't think I'd be alive at this horrible age."

Max Nicholson contributed more to conservation in Britain during the 20th century than any other individual: in 1949 he helped set up (and, later, for 14 years ran) the world's first statutory conservation body, the Nature Conservancy, and in 1961 he launched the first of the world's great green pressure groups, the World Wildlife Fund (now the Worldwide Fund for Nature).

Along the way he led both the British Trust for Ornithology and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and was founder editor of the ultimate authoritative European bird book, the nine-volume Birds of the Western Palaearctic.

But he was a mere stripling of 21, an unknown but ambitious writer on natural history, when he decided to carry out a complete census of the birds of Kensington Gardens, the westward extension of Hyde Park to Kensington Palace.

American ornithologists had used the technique with great success to show how important the idea of territory was for birds to breed successfully - each bird needs an area big enough to gather food for itself and its family - but it had never been done in Britain. Max Nicholson enlisted the help of his brother Basil, and dividing the gardens into 19 sections, on 2 and 4 November 1925 they spent a total of nine hours counting all the birds, employing various strategies to avoid double-counting.

They found 30 species and a total of 3,982 birds: house sparrows were most numerous at 2,603, followed by starlings (411), black-headed gulls (289) woodpigeons (241) and mallard (240). There were 27 blue tits, 19 great tits, 21 blackbirds, 16 robins and six wrens.

Mr Nicholson believed the counts were accurate to within 10 per cent, and an indication of this was the repeat of the census a month later, when the number of birds counted was only 203 fewer, with the sparrow figure being 2,595, a difference of only eight individuals. The census was repeated; the next one in 1948 showed a substantial drop in sparrow numbers to 885,thought to reflect the inter-war disappearance from London's streets of the horse and spilled grain associated with it, which provided much sparrow food.

But after that, the Kensington Gardens house sparrows were more or less on a plateau, if a gently declining one: 642 birds in 1966 and 544 in 1975, the 50th anniversary census, which Mr Nicholson himself took part in. It was when the Nineties arrived that the true crash came. The 1995 census, organised by Royal Parks Wildlife Group chairman Roy Sanderson found only 81 birds remaining.

Yesterday's count, by three teams of two observers, each organised by Mr Sanderson once again, was the more remarkable for recording 50 species, the highest number ever, including five new ones - red-crested pochard, stock dove, green woodpecker, fieldfare and brambling - proving Kensington Gardens remains a fertile habitat.

But sparrows almost did not figure. Two of the teams found none, until observers Doug Boyd and Graham Giddens located a flock of eight birds in the neighbourhood of Kensington Palace. The count was carried on a sunlit morning, a respite from the current spate of downpours, and a major difference from the same week in 1925 was that most of the trees were still covered in leaves. Seventy-five years ago, there were bare. "Global warming!" Mr Nicholson said, referring to the belief that climate change is making autumn later and later.

His own unusual theory for the sparrow decline, as The Independent has recorded, is that the species has a suicidal tendency - if numbers drop too low, they simply cease breeding. Roy Sanderson thinks they may be suffering from attacks by parasites. Denis Summers-Smith, the world expert, thinks motor-vehicle pollution may be killing off the insects they need to feed their young. Whatever the reason, Saturday's count illustrates that they are on a steep slide to extinction.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday

Actress sees off speculation about her face in an amazing way

News

Florida mother launched a petition to ban the sale of the dolls

Arts and Entertainment
film

Marvel has released first teaser trailer week early after it leaked online

Extras
indybest
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
News
i100
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Front end web developer - URGENT CONTRACT

£250 - £300 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: **URGENT CONTRACT** Our...

ABAP Developer

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ampersand Consulting LLP: SAP ABAP Developer - Rugb...

Head of Finance - Media

£80000 - £90000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: Working for an International Mul...

Health & Social CareTeacher - Full time and Part time

£90 - £140 per day + Mileage and Expenses: Randstad Education Leeds: Sixth for...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?