Fall in sparrow numbers is reversed in Scotland

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The demise of the humble house sparrow, whose plight has been highlighted by The Independent and is now cited by the Government as an example of environmental degradation, appears to have been reversed in Scotland.

As numbers of the once common bird continue to fall across most of the UK, a new survey by the British Trust for Ornithology has discovered a surprising rise in the species' fortunes north of the border.

In the past 25 years house sparrow numbers in the UK have fallen by about two-thirds with many populations completely vanishing from large cities. In 1925, one of the 20th century's leading ornithologists, Max Nicholson, recorded 2,603 sparrows in Kensington Gardens, London. Fifty years later a similar survey found numbers had fallen to about 500 and by 1995 that was further reduced to 81. When Mr Nicholson returned last year for the 75th anniversary of his first count, no sparrows were found,

There has been increased pressure on sparrow populations across Europe but many of Britain's biggest cities seem to have been hardest hit.

Reasons for the decline are unknown but theories on why the bird most associated with human habitation and activity should be disappearing include the increased use of pesticides, traffic pollution, climate change and even modern building techniques, which leave no holes or crevices for the birds to nest.

The new survey by the trust's Garden Bird Watch programme suggests that efforts can be made to ensure the species does not disappear altogether.

One possible reason for the rise in numbers in Scotland last year may be down to greater awareness by the public and increased efforts to help the birds. Many home-owners have responded to pleas for help by building nesting boxes, providing bird feeders full of peanuts and seeds, cutting down on pesticides and growing plants that attract small insects, thereby giving the sparrows a breeding boost.

Andrew Cannon, of the Garden Bird Watch programme, said: "There is still a lot to be done. There has been a fall of 5 per cent in sparrow populations across most of the UK between 1994 and last year.

"Only in Scotland has there been a slight upsurge, with a 17 per cent rise in numbers over the last year. However much good news it is, it does not even begin to compensate for the decline of the last 30 years."

The trust's scheme, which relies on the observations of volunteer bird watchers across the country, is anxious to discover at which point during the sparrow's life cycle the bird begins to suffer so that causes and solutions can be identified.

Mike Raven, the national organiser of the trust's Breeding Birds Survey, said: "Between 1994 and 2000, there was a 50 per cent decrease in sparrows in London and a 20 per cent decrease in other regions of England." Scientists are studying the house sparrow's decline as part of a government research contract announced late last year.

"During the same time, there has been a total 27 per cent increase in numbers in Scotland. We don't know why Scottish numbers are increasing while the South is losing its sparrows but the picture is the same for many birds.

"Overall, in the last six years, there have been more species showing an increase in numbers than those decreasing. But over the longer term, say the last 40 years, the figures show otherwise.

"Obviously a change in farming practices can account for much of the damage done to species such as the partridge, lapwing or skylark, but we can't so easily identify the problems faced by the sparrow."

* The Independent continues to offer a prize of £5,000 for the first paper published in a peer-reviewed reputable scientific journal, which, in the opinion of our referees, convincingly accounts for the disappearance of the house sparrow from Britain's towns and cities.