Ministers to search for lost sparrows

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The Independent Online

Ministers are to launch an investigation into the sudden disappearance of one of London's most famous inhabitants - the Cockney sparrow.

Ministers are to launch an investigation into the sudden disappearance of one of London's most famous inhabitants - the Cockney sparrow.

The survey will try to find out why house sparrows, one of the most successful and adaptable birds on the planet, have rapidly plunged to the verge of extinction in the capital.

Only a handful of the birds that once thronged the city's parks and streets survive, and experts say its demise is imminent. Some blame pollution.

The move marks an abrupt U-turn for the Government, which only two years ago was insisting there was "little evidence to suggest a significant long-term decline in the numbers or range of house sparrows". Now Lord Whitty, a junior environment minister, has said in a letter to Lord Hardy, the Labour peer, that the Government is taking the situation seriously and letting out a contract to investigate the reasons for the decline.

House sparrows, cheeky and opportunistic, have colonised every continent except Antarctica and they breed almost everywhere, from 14,000 feet up in the Himalayas to nearly 2,000ft down a coal mine.

But Doctor Denis Summers-Smith, one of the world's leading authorities on the birds, says: "They seem to have disappeared almost entirely from central London."

Apparently, the decline started around 20 years ago. Since 1994, none have bred in the garden of Buckingham Palace, central London's richest wildlife site. The last pair bred in St James Park - in the cottage on Duck Island in the middle of the lake - in 1998.

A few seem to survive in Kensington Gardens, and a pair nested last year under the bridge over the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

Mr Roy Sanderson, chairman of the Central Royal Parks Wildlife Group, says predators including magpies, jays, crows and sparrow hawks are closing in on the few survivors, taking their young. "Their demise is not far off," he says.

Sparrows are also sparse in London's suburbs, including the once bird-filled Bromley and Surbiton, say the wildlife experts, and other cities from Glasgow to Hamburg also seem to be losing the birds, though they still flourish in Paris, for reasons yet to be ascertained.

No one knows why sparrows are in such dire peril, but some of the researchers believe that perhaps increasing pollution from vehicle exhausts have killed off the insects the birds need to feed their young in their first few days of life.

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