Thousands, Millions

Tree Sparrow. Aomorikuma’s original photograph (Click for link)

So that house sparrow twitch I was talking about the other week? Well, somehow I am still yet to clap eyes on a single passer domesticus this year; I’ve heard sparrows, I’ve been in my car or in a lecture at the same time as other people present have seen sparrows. But for me, they remain elusive. Ironically I have in the first three weeks of the year managed to see a bittern twice, a woodcock, and two species of owl, none of which you would categorise as bold, confiding birds, at least during daylight hours. I  have also seen 12 Tree sparrows skipping in and out of a hedgerow near Henley. That was on the 5th of January, and was my first and at current rate of progress last successful ‘twitch’ of the year. There was probably a time when the thought of twitching Tree sparrows would have been laughable, as all you would have needed to do is head to any suitable patch of countryside, or even a nearby garden, to find them by the bucket load. At a few special spots in the country, and in a few lucky areas, they are still fairly easy to see. But in a lot of counties, they are now rare enough to be considered newsworthy, in the birding world.

Though a declining bird of the farmed countryside, somehow they seem less talked about than Skylark, or Lapwing, or Yellowhammer, or even Corn Bunting. Perhaps the reasons for their decline are less well understood, though I’m pretty sure it is roughly the same story — whatever the reason, they are definitely included in this group of species for which our concern is not really that they will shortly disappear from the countryside, though if the current trend continued long term that could be a possibility, but that their dramatic reduction in numbers as a group, amounting to about a 50% decline in abundance over the last few decades, points to a broad state of ill health across the farmed landscape of Britain.

Abundance – funny word. Jesus is sometimes translated as having said ‘I have come that you might have life, and have it in abundance’, and I think we normally presume that ‘a bun dance’ is some archaic form of church fete, with polite dancing, and tea, and sticky buns. Sounds nice. Civilized. But I think abundance is supposed to be wild. Almost frightening. Abundance is 15,000 puffins strewn across the very ends of Britain at Hermaness. There’s one such clown at the top of this page, but imagine 14,999 more. Imagine hundreds of gannets, wings retracted, piercing the sea at once, a million starlings drifting like fish across a winter’s evening sky, or a huge skein of geese moving powerfully along the coast. That’s abundance, that’s the wildlife of Britain.

I think it’s pretty special, and I’m not the only one. Conservation is often focussed on a rare species. Makes sense in all sorts of ways, but I reckon we nature lovers should take notice of all the change going on around us — or our abundant, exuberant wildlife could be disappearing before we even know how to help turn it around. It isn’t impossible, since North America managed to go from perhaps as many as 5 billion to absolutely no Passenger Pigeons in not much more than a century. We are unlikely to lose our sparrows quite that quickly, since we aren’t blasting them from the skies in unimaginable numbers, but it does serve as a reminder that it is not wise to take anything for granted. I miss the sound of house sparrows — I just don’t hear it as much as I used to, and despite what I frequently claim I am still quite young. This change is happening in front of my eyes, and I don’t like it.

So for the farmland birds, perhaps our sea bird colonies, and for our old friend the sparrows especially, the conservation concern is, as I’ve said, not necessarily that these species are threatened with local extinction in Britain —  but that the sheer numbers enjoyed by our grandparents’ generation are a thing of the past, and the more moderate numbers we enjoy are at risk of fading into history as well. The old school song goes “There are hundreds of sparrows, thousands, millions, they’re two a penny far too many there must be”. If schoolchildren are still singing this anywhere, let’s hope the lyrics don’t warrant modification in the future. Furthermore declining populations can be like a landscape thermometer — they tell us something is not right, and it would be risky to ignore the warning signs. Abundant life is a marvelous, spirit giving thing, and those of us who draw some of our own life from it should be doing something to keep it.

Sparrow declines to be studied….

Numerous reasons for the House Sparrow decline have been put forward, with perhaps the most noteworthy being the increasing population of — Sparrowhawks! Now, this argument being almost too easy, I and many others on hearing this have tended to snort derisively, and dismiss it as being, well, silly. I presumed it was the work only of quacks and ‘non-scientists’, until I was emailed a paper making the link, by authors from Cambridge University and the BTO. Hardly hothouses of quackery, to coin a phrase. Still, I can’t quite believe the answer could be so obvious, and I am reliably told sparrows do not form the major component of a sparrowhawk’s diet. But in the spirit of scientific endeavour, I propose to publish some high profile, objective original research. Right here on this blog! Oh yes! Watch this space, science fans.

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