£5,000 prize still to be claimed by anyone who finds the explanation

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The Independent Online

The vanishing house sparrow has been placed in the public spotlight by The Independent's campaign to save the bird, which began last May.

The vanishing house sparrow has been placed in the public spotlight by The Independent's campaign to save the bird, which began last May.

Our offer of a £5,000 prize for the first scientific paper properly explaining its disappearance from British towns and cities ­ which of course still stands ­ has attracted worldwide attention: one internet search engine gives the campaign 584 references. Tony Blair used the sparrow's decline as a prime example of environmental degradation in his first big speech on green issues last October, shortly before the Government announced its research contract.

The campaign has highlighted a genuine mystery in the natural world: something catastrophic has happened in the ecosystem of British urban sparrows, which, as we show again today, has not happened in some other European cities. But what? And if it is harming sparrows, might it be harming human city dwellers?

The many suggestions we have received in more than 350 letters from readers range from magpies, sparrowhawks and cats, to peanuts, pesticides, home improvements and climate change.

The Grand Old Man of British ornithology, Max Nicholson, thinks the decline may be due to a "suicidal tendency" in the species, which makes flocks break up and cease breeding once they fall below a critical number.

The world expert, Dr Denis Summers-Smith, thinks we should examine the introduction of lead-free petrol, because the sparrow's steep decline in city centres in the 1990s seems to coincide with unleaded's introduction.

But as yet, no one knows the answer, and a mystery it remains.

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