Nature Studies: Where are all the sparrows in London?

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

Share

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.

READ MORE:
I'm tired of hearing about Israel and Palestine
Apple doesn't like vaginas, and they're not alone
What the media isn't telling us about the Middle East

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sales Consultant – Permanent – West Sussex – £24-£25k plus commission and other benefits

£24000 - £25000 Per Annum plus company car and commission: Clearwater People S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Glou...

Humanities and Economics Teacher - January 2015 - Malaysia

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Bush Snr and his adviser Lee Atwater  

Perception is reality: The facts won't matter in next year's general election

Simon Kelner
<p><b>Mock the Week</b></p>
The newest of our quiz shows was created by Created by Dan Patterson and Mark Leveson, who also made 'Whose Line is it Anyway?'. This is more of a 'quiz' format, and for me, the best part about it is that it introduced me to Frankie Boyle.  

Liberal shows like Mock The Week just can’t understand why Ukip has so many supporters

Nigel Farage
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain