UK sparrows becoming an endangered species

A A A

House sparrows are rapidly vanishing from many of Britain's big cities, a survey by The Independent indicates.

The bird thought of as the ultimate urban survivor, once present everywhere and as much as part of city life as traffic jams, is disappearing swiftly in big urban centres across the land. Its decline, which seems to have begun in the late 1970s or early 1980s, appears to have speeded up in the mid-90s, with some areas losing theirremaining birds in five or six years.

The cause of the decline is a mystery: reasons suggested include the disappearance of insect food because of pesticides, disappearance of nesting places as inner-city areas are tidied up, pollution, and - a favourite of many non-scientists - attacks by magpies and other predators with booming urban populations such as sparrowhawks and carrion crows.

The house sparrow has already vanished from central London, as The Independent reported three weeks ago, provoking considerable correspondence from readers.

Now they are also disappearing from such cities as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Newcastle, Leeds, Bradford, Southampton, Sheffield and Nottingham and are in decline in other centres such as Manchester and Bristol. Only in Cardiff do they appear still to be flourishing.

Even though Britain's birds are more intensively surveyed than those of any other country, the phenomenon has been little picked up or publicised inindividual cities so far because sparrows have been so common and inconsequential that birdwatchers have not bothered with them.

"You would miss them by their obviousness," said Brian Hallworth, a birdwatcher in Stockport, Greater Manchester. But he now looks out for sparrows, as a poll by The Independent of bird enthusiasts up and down Britain, in particular of the network of county bird recorders, has shown that the population crash seen in London is being paralleled in many other urban centres.

The fall in numbers across the country as a whole is being registered in big surveys. Two months ago the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) jointly published the first in a series of annual reports on populations.

The State of the UK's Birds 1999 showed house sparrow numbers had fallen 58 per cent between 1975, when they were first monitored, and 1998. A 7 per cent decline for Britain as a whole was recorded in the years 1994-98 by the BTO's breeding birds survey.

But when cities and especially city centres are considered individually, some declines appear astonishing. In Glasgow, house sparrows have gone from the centre, said Ian Gibson, local bird recorder since 1975 and Glasgow City Council's conservation officer. "They've been diminishing for the last 10 years but the decline seems to have accelerated recently," he said. "Flocks used to be common in the city centre, and in particular round George Square but now in the city centre they seem to be extinct."

A more scientific survey of Glasgow's birds, by the world expert on the house sparrow, Denis Summers-Smith, found a density in the suburbs of 4.9 birds per hectare in 1959. When he repeated it in 1997, Dr Summers-Smith found a density of below 0.1 birds per hectare in an area four times as big.

A similar picture has been observed 50 miles away by the Edinburgh birdwatchers Harry Dott and Alan Brown, who observed house sparrows in Princes Street gardens from 1982-84 and again from 1997-99. In the first period the birds averaged between 200 and 300 in number; in the second period, between 20 and 30.

The declines are paralleled in such places as Liverpool, which had a large house sparrow population. Now, according to Eric Hardy, a naturalist who has written a local newspaper column for many years, they are present in only a fraction of their former numbers.

Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect