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Where have all the sparrows gone?

Michael McCarthy
Thursday 06 October 2016 19:49 BST

18 March 2000

The game of spot-the-difference begins almost as soon as you get off the Eurostar at Gare du Nord. It’s irresistible: London and Paris are now so close to each other on the surface, but in subtle ways still so far apart. Walk along a boulevard and pick out the things you just don’t see in London. Look at the number of women wearing fur. Look at the number of women walking small, chic dogs. Look at the number of women walking small, chic dogs wearing fur. Look at the prevalence in restaurants of a simple but delicious dish, herring fillets with warm potato salad (a starter in every brasserie). Look how well the Metro runs. Look how clean the streets are. Look at the sparrows.

Yes indeed, look! Sparrows! Here we were with the children on a half-term break last month, buying an ice-cream at the Palais de Chaillot as we take in the stupendous view across the river to the Eiffel Tower, and what’s this around our feet? Half a dozen of them, cheeky, chancing their luck, darting in for the dropped crumb, the piece of cornet. Here they are scuffling crossly over the children’s playground in the Tuileries, here they are hopping with intent along the formal gravel walks of the Luxembourg Gardens, here they are hanging around the little flower market on the Left Bank in a chattering flock.

Paris is full of sparrows. It always has been, and the city’s most memorable singer, small but irrepressible, called herself after the French slang word for sparrow, piaf. But London isn’t. Not any more. In one of the most remarkable events in the natural world of the last few decades, only now being properly perceived, the capital’s sparrows have disappeared.

At the Tower of London, in Trafalgar Square, at Piccadilly Circus, around Big Ben, outside Buckingham Palace, in St James’s Park, at any of the sights where tourists gather and where 20 years ago hungry and hopeful sparrows would pursue them, just like their plentiful Parisian cousins were doing last month, they have vanished. Across central London, in the streets, under the eaves, in the hedges, along the railway lines, in the great railway stations, in the parks and the gardens and the trees, they have melted away.

They have.

They’ve gone.

No one understands why. All that can be said with certainty is that within the London sparrow eco-system, something mysterious, something catastrophic, has taken place.

The bird we are talking about is the house sparrow, Passer domesticus, which has hitherto been one of the world’s most successful creatures. It occurs naturally all across Europe, much of Asia and North Africa, and has been introduced to Southern Africa, the Americas and Australasia: Antarctica is the only continent without it. It has been found breeding at 14,000ft up in the Himalayas and nearly 2,000ft down in Frickley Colliery near Doncaster (really: in 1979). It is one of the world’s commonest birds, and almost certainly the most widespread.

More than that, it is beyond doubt the most familiar. Down the ages the house sparrow has generated a special affection in us, based on its close association with people and towns: a perception of its character as humble but hardy, as small but streetsmart, an urchin, but an urchin that lives on its wits. When Hamlet told Horatio there was special providence in the fall of a sparrow he was making it the exemplar of the lowly, but the bird was that already, more than 1,600 years earlier in Rome: Catullus’s famous and charming poem on the death of Lesbia’s sparrow is mock -elegiac, calling all Venuses and Cupids to grieve for his girlfriend’s pet. Lowly, yes; but also, London’s Cockney sparrer: the ultimate urban survivor.

All the more astonishing that in one of the world’s great cities, this is the bird that has vanished. There is no doubt about it: the figures are there. In November 1925, a young man of 21 went into one of central London’s greenest parks, Kensington Gardens, and counted the house sparrows: there were 2,603.

The man was Max Nicholson, a passionate ornithologist and the founding father of Britain’s environmental institutions, who as a senior civil servant in 1949 brought into being the world’s first statutory conservation body, the Nature Conservancy, and subsequently ran it for 15 years. In December 1948 he repeated the survey: there were 885 birds. In November 1966 there were 642. In November 1975 there were 544. And when he counted them in February 1995, at the age of 91, there were 46, a number which almost certainly will by now have dropped even further.

These figures, described by Chris Mead of the British Trust for Ornithology as “quite amazing and very disquieting”, are backed up by several other surveys, and especially by work done by the Central Royal Parks Wildlife Group, whose chairman, Roy Sanderson, helped Max Nicholson with his 1995 survey. The group’s own survey of Buckingham Palace gardens, where in the Sixties up to 20 pairs of sparrows bred, found no sparrows breeding after 1994. In St James’s Park, where once sparrows could be found by the hundred, a single pair nested in 1998; last year, for the first time, no birds bred.

The perception of what has happened, of the scale of it, is only just beginning to percolate through to the public consciousness. If you live in London and you become aware of it, however, you see it everywhere, and find yourself looking out for sparrows like a trainspotter – almost always in vain – which is why they register so instantly on the radar in Paris.

The cause is unknown. The earlier decline shown in Max Nicholson’s figures, between 1925 and 1948, has been attributed to the disappearance of the horse from London’s streets, and the loss of the undigested grain in horse manure which was an important source of food for small birds. But the reason for the astonishing crash in the central London population, which seems to have begun around 1978, has not been fathomed.

The world expert on the house sparrow is Dr Denis Summers-Smith, an engineering consultant who lives living in Guisborough, Cleveland, and who since 1963 has published four books on the bird. He is fascinated and concerned by its London disappearance and thinks the likeliest cause is failure of the food supply required by the sparrow chicks in their first three days of life, when they need animal food – caterpillars, weevils, grubs – rather than the vegetable food such as bread or seeds that they can eat a short time later. Such a failure, he thinks, might be due to pollution. “I think it’s ominous,” he says. “Whatever it is, if it’s affecting the sparrows, is it doing us any good? I think of the miner’s canary.”

But no one really knows. The only certainty is that they have gone.

One day last week, I set out to look for sparrows in London in the sorts of places where Paris still holds them by the bucketful. I started in Trafalgar Square, worked through St James Park, then Green Park, then Hyde Park, then Kensington Gardens where Max Nicholson did his surveys. I took good binoculars and I saw marvellous birds: a goldeneye, a striking duck that nests in Scandinavia, a great crested grebe in full breeding plumage, a kestrel, a green woodpecker. By the time I reached Kensington Palace I had traversed all of central London’s green lung and in more than two hours’ hard searching, with the trees still empty of leaves, had seen 28 species of birds; but of Passer domesticus there was no sign.

I looked about me, astonished. It was exactly the same sort of place as the Luxembourg Gardens, where, just a three-hour Eurostar ride away, Edith Piaf’s little brown namesake hops as it has always done about the feet of the tourists and the students and the nannies and the women in fur coats walking small, chic dogs.

But me old cock sparrer, where are you now?

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