Max Nicholson: The sad, unheeded message of a vanishing species

'Modern architects used much ingenuity in creating deserts of sparrow-proof buildings'

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Talk about vanishing house sparrows, and reports of their local survival, should lead us to ask questions about ourselves and our own survival. Being concerned about both, I am moved to put two and two together. When I was a 21-year-old, in 1925, my response to the mad urge of that age-group was to make a complete bird census of Kensington Gardens. I counted, among other species, 2,603 house sparrows. The mania persisted, and counts in future years showed that their numbers were declining quite fast. Lately the collapse has been almost total, and it has been matched in places all over Britain.

Talk about vanishing house sparrows, and reports of their local survival, should lead us to ask questions about ourselves and our own survival. Being concerned about both, I am moved to put two and two together. When I was a 21-year-old, in 1925, my response to the mad urge of that age-group was to make a complete bird census of Kensington Gardens. I counted, among other species, 2,603 house sparrows. The mania persisted, and counts in future years showed that their numbers were declining quite fast. Lately the collapse has been almost total, and it has been matched in places all over Britain.

What could be the reason? At the time, it seemed most likely that the rapid replacement of horse traffic, with its spreading about of waste grain, must be the answer. This may well have first triggered the decline. But its persistence till today presents a fresh mystery, which leads me over from my ornithological to my human ecology interest as well.

I had always been aware that this clever, enterprising bird, originally a colonist of Europe from Asia, was keenly aware of the gains it could make by attaching itself closely to the spreading human settlements and crops. By this means it could even expand from its native hot climates to the chillier and wetter northern lands. Human beings came to regard the bird's passion for our company as a community of spirit, beyond a mere accidental link. And they were right! A main reason why house sparrows banded together to seek our neighbourhood was their odd shared passion for chirping (rather than chatting) together about this and that. They also loved inspecting and even grooming one another, and simply showing off.

Many other small birds had feeding habits that kept them busy picking up insects from dawn to dusk. Sparrows, whose chicks also ate mainly insects, realised early that this would leave them with no time for sparrowing among themselves. Looking around, they discovered that this odd human animal not only had similarly demanding habits but was also given to dropping about useful amounts of food that sparrows could happily glean and live upon. So they learnt quickly to translate into sparrow talk: "Bob's your uncle!"

But, unremarked by us, these observant birds avoided a number of human links. Of our animals, they loved our horses but had no time for our cows, sheep or dogs, and were quite terrified of our cats. In our settlements they avoided the most closely built-up, especially the high sites, being choosy about the mix of suitable buildings, sunny raised perches and accessible surfaces in open spaces. The favoured settlements would either include large open spaces or be compact enough to allow easy access to a cultivated, not pastoral or wooded, countryside.

For centuries our scattered smallish towns and villages and our arable farms gave the sparrows just what they wanted. Our only nasty practice was encouraging "sparrow clubs" to go around shooting them, but not enough were killed to hurt the species seriously.

Within about the past century, however, our lifestyles began to be less and less sparrow-friendly. Farms lost their easygoing horses, replaced by tractors and barren mechanisation. Spillages became regarded as waste, while many fresh sources were just toxic pollution also of the atmosphere. Even harvests were meanly managed.

Modern architects used much ingenuity in creating new deserts of sparrow-proof buildings, covering entire urban areas that had to be evacuated. Artificial light pollution interfered with sleep. Hollows and brackets for nesting vanished from the scene. Trees close to buildings grew steadily scarcer. While old-world human settlements still gave them hospitality, modern sparrows could no longer bear life with modern man. Unlike the old coal-miners who cosseted tame canaries to warn them when their mines were becoming perilous, modern townspeople lapped up successive waves of inhuman or even life-threatening technology, heedless of the implications. Hardly anyone noticed when the familiar sparrows chirped: "This grows uninhabitable. We quit!"

Only in America did wise leaders in cities such as Baltimore and Pittsburgh get the same message and organise monitoring surveys to guide vigorous and effective local campaigns for restoring livability to their blighted urban centres. Attempts to import this here won no response. Newspapers carried more and more columns about urban stress, NHS waiting lists grew ever longer, streets became unsafe through violent crime and people spent more and more time locked in standing, polluting traffic jams.

Yet no one asked: "What made all the sparrows leave? Was it perhaps something with a message for us, too?"

Before discomfort gives way to pain, and pain to premature death, may it even yet be not too late for us to listen imaginatively to that last, sad chirp?

The writer headed the Nature Conservancy (1952-66) and helped to found the World Wildlife Fund

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