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Nature Studies: Where are all the sparrows in London?

They were once ubiquitous. Now the sight of them is a thrill

Last week I went looking for London’s most special wild birds. There have been various candidates for this title over the years. In the immediate post-war period a charming, quite uncommon songbird began nesting on the weed-bedecked bomb sites in the City: it was the black redstart. (There’s still the odd one around, although the bomb sites are long gone.) And more recently, peregrine falcons have started nesting on the capital’s tall buildings: pretty special.

But the birds I was seeking are more notable still, because they were once the commonest and most familiar of all in London, and even taken as symbols of streetwise urban Londoners: Cockney sparrahs. Yet in one of the greatest unsolved wildlife mysteries of recent years, house sparrows have gone from London almost completely.

Independent readers may remember that in 2000 this newspaper offered a £5,000 prize for the first scientific paper which, in the opinion of our referees, would explain the disappearance of the house sparrow from London and other urban centres (the referees were the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the British Trust for Ornithology, and Dr Denis Summers-Smith, the world expert on the sparrow family).

There have been three entries for the prize, which has not been awarded. Two, from the same independent researcher, both suggested the reason was predation by sparrowhawks: the referees rejected this unanimously. The other, from a group of conservation scientists, proposed that the reason was lack of insect food: over this, the referees were split. This latter paper convincingly suggested the parent birds could no longer get enough of the insects such as aphids which the chicks need in the first few days of their lives – but it did not explain why the insects themselves had disappeared, which remains an enigma.

In the meantime, the sparrows that vanished, remain vanished, and central London is a sparrow-free zone – more or less. I say that because from time to time, there are reports of the odd colony of house sparrows clinging on in quiet corners, and the person who knows more about this than anyone else is Helen Baker, president of the London Natural History Society.

A retired civil servant and sparrow enthusiast, Helen was one of the first people to notice that London’s sparrows were vanishing; in 1994 she began to organise an LNHS sparrow survey, with the increasingly-obvious disappearance in mind. Twenty years on she is still looking out for sparrows, and last week I joined her on a three-hour walk to try to find traces of Passer domesticus, or Passer domesticus londoniensis, as you might say.

Helen thought she knew of three small colonies, two of them on the South Bank, so we slowly walked the length of the riverside from London Bridge to Waterloo Bridge, watching and listening – you often hear sparrows chirruping before you see them – at the raft of tourist attractions from Borough Market to The Globe to Tate Modern to the National Theatre, all with associated eating places, where in the past hungry sparrows would have gathered by the score.

They were hungry pigeons, hundreds and hundreds of them, and in Borough Market there were starlings too, and further on, various gulls, and the occasional magpie: but of sparrows, not a sign. At the two places where Helen had noted colonies in the recent past, a garden near The Anchor pub, and another garden at Gabriel’s Wharf, there was no trace of them whatsoever. The South Bank was sparrow-free.

We crossed Waterloo Bridge then, into the West End, a last throw to try for Helen’s third colony, and to my thrilled amazement, eventually, we found it. It was in a very quiet part of a famous street, almost a backwater in the heart of tourist London, centred on a tiny public garden where the birds foraged: they nested in an old block of flats nearby.

Just a handful of them. Very shy, hiding in the garden’s bushes. But there they were.

The sound of them, the chirruping, came before the sight, and it’s hard to describe my elation: I cried out “I hear them! I hear them!” and then when I saw them, they might have been the rarest birds in the land, red-backed shrikes or black-winged stilts, such was my delight. I said to Helen: “I never imagined I would ever feel this way about sparrows.”

Even the commonplace is vulnerable now, in a world where wildlife is under ever-increasing stress and threat; we should treasure it all.