Revealed: the flight of sparrows from the heart of London
By Michael McCarthy Environment Editor
14 January 2003
Where once there was the cockney sparrer there is a visible and yawning
gap. The most vivid evidence yet of the mysterious disappearance of the
house sparrow from central London is published today, in the shape of a
The chart of the capital has a hole in the middle – showing the almost
complete absence of sparrows from the West End and the city's core,
while they remain present in greater numbers around its edges.
The chart gives statistical backing to what has been known by anecdote
for several years; Passer domesticus, the archetypal urban bird once
ubiquitous in the heart of London, including Trafalgar Square, has
vanished, leaving the streets to the pigeons.
The map is the outcome of the London Sparrow Survey, for which nearly
12,000 people recorded their observations of house sparrows in the
capital between June and July last year, providing information on the
birds at 9,172 homes and 3,698 other places.
The survey, organised by the London Biodiversity Partnership, is the
capital's biggest participatory study of a bird species and its results
were welcomed yesterday by Ken Livingstone, the Mayor.
"The sparrow is part of London's identity and their friendliness has
helped make wildlife accessible to all Londoners," he said. "Their
decline should worry us all – the sparrow's world is our world. If
something is wrong with the sparrow, it is vital that we find out
what's behind it. This survey is an important part of that process and
I'm delighted to see so many Londoners taking part."
House sparrows were once common in the royal parks and in November 1925
the naturalist Max Nicholson, then 21, counted 2,603 in Kensington
Gardens alone. But over the years their numbers dropped, probably
because of the disappearance of the horse from London's streets and the
grain spilt from its nose bag and undigested in its manure, a ready
source of sparrow food.
Their numbers stayed more or less on a plateau from the Fifties until
the Eighties. Then, in the Nineties, there was a crash. When Nicholson,
by then 96, went back to count the sparrows in Kensington Gardens in
November 2000, on the 75th anniversary of his first survey, he and his
helpers from the London Natural History Society found eight.
No one knows the reason for their disappearance, although it is
paralleled in other British cities including Liverpool and Glasgow.
Among the explanations offered are: pollution killing off the small
insects eaten by very young sparrow chicks; predation by cats and other
birds, such as sparrowhawks and magpies; and a lack of suitable nesting
nooks and crannies in modern buildings. But the mystery remains.
The survey does not try to offer an answer, although it throws up some
suggestions. For example, the highest numbers of sparrow nests were in
buildings and houses dating back to at least 1919.
The survey shows a definite "sparrow hotspot" in London's eastern
suburbs, with sparrows reported at 94 per cent of respondents' homes in
the borough of Havering, and 93 per cent in Barking and Dagenham. But
the survey cannot be used to estimate the sparrow population of London
because the figures might not be representative – people were possibly
more likely to respond if they saw sparrows than if they did not.
Further analysis of the results is planned to see how strongly they
correlate with the factors thought to be affecting population numbers.
Keith Noble, of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who is
the London sparrow officer, said: "We now know so much more about
sparrows in London and the results can inspire new lines of scientific
inquiry. Hopefully, we are now another step closer to solving the
mystery of the sparrow's decline and will soon feel confident that we
can aid their recovery."
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