National survey of sparrows launched

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The Independent Online

The campaign to save the house sparrow from its steep decline in numbers yesterday received a major boost when the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds launched a national survey.

The campaign to save the house sparrow from its steep decline in numbers yesterday received a major boost when the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds launched a national survey.

House sparrows, once one of the most common urban birds in Britain, suffered a fall in numbers of 64 per cent between 1972 and 1996. In some city centres, such as London and Glasgow, it is now virtually absent.

The RSPB yesterday asked its members to provide data on the location of pairs of breeding house sparrows nesting in their homes, along with information about the condition and design of their houses.

The society believes that trends in modern house design, such as roofs that stop sparrows from nesting naturally under eaves, could help scientists understand why the species has disappeared from British cities. By contrast, the bird still thrives in other major European cities such as Paris and Madrid.

The survey follows the launch of The Independent's campaign in May to save the house sparrow. Theories about the cause of the decline range from a form of suicidal depression, put forward by Max Nicholson, the father of modern environment- alism, to predation by cats and magpies, the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and chemical-intensive farming.

One favoured theory blames the increased use of garden pesticides, which naturalists fear may have greatly cut insect numbers, removing a vital food source for sparrow chicks.

Following The Independent's initiative, the Government unveiled a two-year research programme, as part of a wider survey on the countryside, into the decline of the sparrow and the starling, whose numbers dropped by 56 per cent between 1973 and 1997.

The RSPB survey, carried out on its internet site in conjunction with BBC Radio 4's Today programme, is also asking for data on the starling, the house martin and swifts, which are also at risk. A huge public response to the survey yesterday saw a special BBC hotline number jammed with calls. By 10am it had received 6,000 calls, with up to 10,000 people calling by late yesterday afternoon.

Previous RSPB surveys into a range of garden birds suggest that sparrow numbers now average four per garden, compared with eight per garden in 1990. The decline seems to have suddenly accelerated in the mid-1990s.

Conservationists also blame the Government for officially listing the sparrow, alongside the starling, as a pest because of the damage it can cause to crops. Rentokil, the pest control company, devotes a full page of its website to sparrows.

Despite concerns raised in the House of Lords by Lord Hardy, chairman of its conservation committee, about the threat this poses to sparrows, ministers insist that control of the species is not a factor in its decline.

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