The secret life of sparrows

The complete disappearance of mankind's oldest feathered friend from the centre of many British cities is a modern mystery. And five years after it was launched, the £5,000 prize offered by The Independent for a scientific explanation still lies unclaimed. What do we know about this elusive bird? Michael McCarthy introduces the richest peckings from a startling new book on the world of the sparrow

Saturday 17 September 2011 12:31

How can the most familiar of birds be the source of one of the natural world's greatest mysteries? There, tantalisingly, is the paradox of the house sparrow, the everyday companion of man for the past 10,000 years, the commonest, most widespread, most adaptable, most successful bird in the world. Until recently.

The mystery is in its vanishing. It is now more than six years since The Independent highlighted the comprehensive disappearance of Passer domesticus from central London, where it used to be ubiquitous: a bird as common, or commoner, than that other winged city street dweller, the feral pigeon. We made headlines around the world by offering a prize of £5,000 for the first scientific paper published in a peer-reviewed journal to explain satisfactorily the disappearance of the sparrow from the centre of London and from other large British cities.

Six years on, the prize is still unclaimed. There is a steadily accumulating body of research on the problem. There are strong hints that the cause of the decline may be a lack of the insects needed as food by the sparrow chicks in the first few days of their lives. Yet if this is the case, what is causing the insect decline? Why are other insectivorous birds not similarly affected? Above all, why has it happened in London, and not in other, very similar European capitals, such as Paris? Sparrows still flock around the tourists in front of Notre Dame. What is it that has changed in the environment here that has not changed in the environment there?

We just don't know. In truth, the rapid and virtually total disappearance of central London's sparrows - they seem to have started going in about 1990 and were gone by the Millennium - is a true mystery, one of the most puzzling enigmas in nature for very many years. It is all the more perplexing because we know so much about sparrows; in fact, because of their intimate association with us, we probably know more about them than any other bird. And we have built up an enormous repertoire of sparrow lore and sparrow legend, sparrow traditions and sparrow stories, as befits the wild creature that has lived closest to us since civilisation began.

This is made charmingly clear in a new book from the world's leading expert on sparrows, Denis Summers-Smith. Dr Summers-Smith, a retired engineer from Guisborough, North Yorkshire, has been studying the house sparrow and its relatives for 58 years and has written four volumes on them. Now, at the age of 85, he has produced a fifth. This latest book, On Sparrows and Man, is a summing up, a distillation of a lifetime's accumulated sparrow knowledge, by a self-confessed sparrow obsessive, drawing on an enormous personal archive of sparrow facts and figures. In it, Dr Summers-Smith sets out to explore the relationship between the birds and ourselves from both sides: how the sparrows have exploited us, and how we have been affected by them in our turn, On Sparrows and Man is the ultimate Sparrow Miscellany. Dip in, why don't you?

The world's most widespread bird

It's everywhere, or nearly so. (Except, of course, central London.) The house sparrow has an immense natural range that stretches from the west coast of Ireland to the east coast of Siberia, north to the Arctic circle and south to North Africa, the Middle East, India and Sri Lanka. But it has also been introduced and is thriving in North America, South America, Australia and New Zealand, and as a result is almost certainly the most widespread bird in the world, as well as one of the commonest. In China, Japan and parts of Central Asia, the house sparrow is replaced by the closely related tree sparrow.

The human connection

No fewer than 16 of the 26 species of the sparrow family have been recorded nesting on our houses or other buildings, and supplementing their diet with food provided by man, either intentionally or not.

The human connection probably began 10,000 years ago when people switched from hunting and gathering to growing crops. House sparrows began associating with wheat farmers in the fertile crescent of the Middle East, and tree sparrows with rice farmers in the Yellow river valley in China.

Biblical sparrows

References to sparrows are very ancient: they are mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. "I watch and am like a sparrow alone on the house top" (Psalm 102:7).

The Evangelists did not, however, agree on their value. According to Matthew, "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?" (Matthew 10:29), whereas Luke, foretelling the modern supermarket, had a better deal: "Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings?" (Luke 12:6).

Sparrows as food

Sparrows have often been eaten and in some places still are. Sparrow pie was a common rural dish in Britain up to the time of the First World War, and even later: a sparrow pie containing 100 sparrows was served on 16 January 1967 at the Rose Inn at Peldon, near Colchester, perhaps for the remaining members of one of the "sparrow clubs" that were once common for trapping the birds.

On the Continent, where small songbirds are still a prized delicacy, sparrows are sometimes illegally imported in great numbers from China: a consignment of 1,263,000 plucked and frozen sparrows was confiscated by customs in Antwerp on 28 January 1997, and a consignment of nearly 2 million frozen tree sparrows was seized by customs in Rotterdam in November 1993, in transit for Italy.

Sparrows down coal mines

It's not only canaries that are found in pits. Most surprisingly of all, sparrows have been found, even nesting, thousands of feet underground in coal mines. They were first seen and thought to be nesting - though this was never proved - in Linton Colliery, Northumberland, in 1956, but a pair of sparrows hatched three young at the bottom of the pit shaft in Frickley Colliery, South Yorkshire, in 1978. They eventually disappeared. They are thought to have gone down the mine on an empty coal bucket returning from the surface.

Sparrows in British history

The first reference to a sparrow in Britain is by the Venerable Bede (?673-735) in his History of the English Church and People: "O King, the present life of men on earth is like the flight of a single sparrow through the hall where, in winter, you sit with your captains and ministers."

Sparrows as a nuisance

Sparrows may be our familiars, but they can sometimes cause problems. In the first instance, they eat crops, and where sufficiently numerous can become a real pest of agriculture, not only by consuming the ripening grain, but also by breaking the stalks when they perch on them. They like to operate from the safety of a hedge, and in this way a five-metre band round the edge of a field can be completely ruined.

In gardens, sparrows have an unexplained habit of tearing the petals off flowers, such as crocuses. And there are some even worse habits....

Sparrows as fire-raisers

There are at least two known cases of sparrows setting houses on fire. In 1960 a sparrow took the end of a lit cigarette into its nest in the roof of a thatched cottage in Saxmundham, Suffolk, setting it ablaze; and in Toledo, Ohio, a two-storey building was set on fire in a similar way in 1966.

Sparrows pay the price

The start of a classical guitar recital being given by Konrad Ragossnig on 2 August 1979 in St Helen's Church, Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire, was delayed by the chirping of a cock sparrow. The rector pronounced a sentence of death, and had the bird shot so the concert could proceed uninterrupted. He met with widespread criticism.

A sparrow has also been executed more recently for interfering with an attempt in the Netherlands to establish a world record in collapsing more than 4 million dominos in one grand "domino effect". The sparrow managed to collapse 23,000 of them before the organiser, the TV company Endemol, had it shot. It, too, was widely criticised, and subsequently fined.

Chairman Mao and the sparrows

In China, the Great Leader Mao Tse-Tung decided in 1958 to get rid of sparrows, calculating that each bird (the tree sparrow) consumed 4.5kg of grain each year and that for every million sparrows killed, there would be food for 60,000 people.

He mobilised the population to kill the birds, to great effect: at least 2.8 million sparrows were killed in Shantung province alone. But what Mao had not taken into account was the number of noxious insects the sparrows consumed when rearing their young. The net result was that the following year the rice crop, far from being increased, was significantly down, The idea was quickly forgotten and the birds soon recovered to their normal level.

The adaptable sparrow

Sparrows not only live in and around houses, they have often moved into big buildings, such as airports and warehouses, and appear to have learnt how to intercept electronic beams to open doors so they can fly in and out, and also to ride through doors on the back of fork-lift trucks. They have even been seen deep in London Underground stations.

Sparrow species

Dr Summers-Smith now considers there are 26 sparrow species, ranging from the familiar house and tree sparrows to the golden and rufous sparrows of Africa. But only 15 were recognised when he started his sparrow studies in earnest in 1948.

He comments wryly on presenting his researches to one of the world's greatest scientists: "I wrote to Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2000), the palaeontologist, evolutionary biologist and science essayist, suggesting this rapid evolution of new sparrow species lent support for his hypothesis of 'punctuated equilibrium', the idea that evolution of new species occurs in periodic bursts, separated by long periods of stasis. He dismissed my proposal, attributing the increase to no more than 'twitcher-driven speciation' - a cynical attitude taken by authors and publishers of new checklists of birds to stimulate sales by giving birdwatchers more opportunities to increase their 'life lists'."

The Independent's £5,000 prize

The Independent's prize, initially offered in 2000 and still unclaimed, is for the first paper published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, which in the opinion of our judges convincingly explains the disappearance of the house sparrow, Passer domesticus, from the centre of London and of other British towns and cities. The judges are the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the British Trust for Ornithology, and Dr Denis Summers-Smith.

Denis Summers-Smith

Dr Denis Summers-Smith is the world authority on the sparrow family in general, and the house sparrow in particular. Born in Glasgow in 1920, he was for many years an engineer in a senior international role with ICI, and devoted all his leisure time to the study of his chosen bird.

His celebrated monograph, The House Sparrow, appeared in the Collins New Naturalist series in 1963; copies now change hands for more than £100. He has written three other books on sparrows, including a monograph on the tree sparrow.

His fifth book, which we feature today, he is publishing privately. On Sparrows and Man is available, price £15, from the Thersby Group, 77 Norton Road, Stockton on Tees TS18 2DA, tel 01642 612 784, e-mail, or e-mail JD Summers-Smith,

Sparrows in tins

In the early 1980s Denis Summers-Smith found a tin labelled "smoked sparrow" on the shelf of his supermarket in North Yorkshire. He took it home and tried it, but there was so much oil and flavouring that the contents "could have been sardines". When he returned to get another tin - for the label - they had vanished from the shelves. He suspected that their origin was China, as the birds on the label were cinnamon sparrows, a species that occurs in China and Japan.

Sparrows in art

As subjects for painters, sparrows have been more popular in the East than the West. For hundreds of years in China and Japan, the tree sparrow has been depicted on plant sprays, or in flocks in flight. But there is one famous and charming Western painting that features it: the Madonna Del Passero (Our Lady of the Sparrow) by the Italian Baroque master Guercino (1591- 1666).

Sparrows in literature

Catullus (84-54BC), the greatest of the Roman lyric poets, wrote two poems about the pet sparrow of his lover Lesbia, who has been identified as Clodia, wife of the consul Quintus Metellus Celer. The second is a lament for the bird after it died, "Passer mortuus est". Fifteen centuries later the English poet John Skelton (1460-1529) wrote a dirge for the pet of Jane Scrope, who lived in Carrow, near Norwich. Many other poets have written of sparrows, from Shakespeare, who has Hamlet say, "There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow", to John Clare, the "peasant poet" of the 19th century.

Sparrows and sport

Perhaps the most curious - and well-publicised - death of a sparrow was that of a bird at Lord's cricket ground in London, killed by a ball bowled by Jehangir Khan in the match between the MCC and Cambridge University on 3 July 1936. This bird has been preserved and can be seen mounted on the ball that killed him in the Memorial Gallery at Lord's.

Sparrows and sex

Sparrows and Sex: 1

One of the reasons that sparrows have been popular as food is that they have been thought of as an aphrodisiac, because of their frequent and visible copulating. House sparrows have a reputation for lecherousness that can be traced back as far as Aristotle (384-322BC), and Chaucer, Shakespeare and John Donne all associated the bird with sexual behaviour. According to Nicholas Culpeper, the medieval herbalist and dietician, "the brain of sparrows when eaten provokes the lust exceedingly". The tree sparrow has the same reputation in the East.

Sparrows and Sex: 2

In Denis Summers-Smith's long period of observing sparrows, which he could identify individually because he had given them differently coloured leg-rings, he never once witnessed infidelity - a bird copulating with another bird that was not its mate. He therefore drew the conclusion that they were sexually monogamous. Yet he was wrong. When DNA fingerprinting arrived in the 1990s, studies showed that as many as 10 to 20 per cent of house sparrow nestlings had not been fathered by the male partner of the pair rearing the young.

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