Tale of the fall of the Domino Sparrow

The sparrow, subject of an exhibition at the Natuurhistorisch Museum in Rotterdam until mid-May 2007.

While gone from the city centre parks in Dublin, the sparrow can still be found in suburbs in Phibsborough and the Liberties.

IN OCTOBER 2005, volunteers from over 100 countries began setting up dominoes at a centre in the Dutch town of Leeuwarden.

A month later, 4,321,000 dominoes were in place and the stage was set for an attempt on the Guinness world domino-knocking record. Then disaster struck: a sparrow flew in through an open window and hit the precious dominoes, knocking 23,000 of them. The sparrow cowered in a corner. A pest-control firm was contacted and the unfortunate bird was shot with an air-gun.

The Dutch are fond of their sparrows; the species is protected by law and there was an outcry over the summary execution of a harmless bird. The contract killer was duly convicted and fined. Under the Dutch equivalent of habeas corpus, the Rotterdam Natural History Museum applied for custody of the remains and, following much red tape, the carcass was handed over to them. The Domino Sparrow, now a famous Dutch martyr, has been stuffed and put on display at the museum, the centre-piece of a special exhibition on sparrows. The hired killer from the pest-control company, unrepentant of his foul deed, attended the opening ceremony. It could only happen in liberal Holland.!

A cricket ball and another famous sparrow are also on show. The bird was killed by bowler Jehangir Khan at the Lord’s cricket ground in 1936. Colliding with a cricket ball is so unlikely that the Lord’s sparrow must have committed suicide.

Rotterdam is an appropriate venue for a celebration of sparrows. Dr CJ Heij, a world expert on sparrows and whose work features in the exhibition, did his ground-breaking research there. The show is the brainchild of the curator Dr Kees Moeliker, who recently received the Ig-Nobel Prize, awarded for bizarre research. A drake mallard, which died when it collided with a window, was immediately raped by another drake.

Moeliker’s observations on the incident led to a paper on homosexual necrophilia in a mallard, which won him the prized Ig-Nobel citation.

The sad fate of the Domino Sparrow mirrors the plight of the species in Western Europe. With the invention of farming in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago, people began to construct permanent dwellings and sow crops. Cereal farming benefits seed-eating birds. So do dwellings. Sparrows are opportunists which devour household scraps. With discarded food and lots of nooks and crannies in which to nest, sparrows have prospered.

Inventive birds, they have nested on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building and in a chamber 640m below ground in Frinkley Colliery, Yorkshire. The abundance of sparrows is even mentioned in the New Testament: “are not sparrows sold for two a penny ...”

In 1852, 100 house sparrows were shipped to New York and birds were taken to Australia. So successful has the species been that it is now one of the most widely distributed wild creatures on Earth. There is an irony here. The house sparrow is a most sedentary bird. According to Dr Heij, few individuals ever venture more than a kilometre from where they fledged.

But then, almost a century ago, things started to go wrong for sparrows. According to Grahame Madge of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a decline in their numbers was first noticed in Britain during the 1920s.

A count in Kensington Gardens in 1925 yielded a total of 2,603 sparrows. There were 835 there in 1948 and only eight birds in 2000. By the late 1990s, sparrows had disappeared from most towns and cities.

There were similar problems in Holland and Germany. But what was causing the problem?

The decline in rural areas is not a mystery. Herbicides and pesticides have eliminated wild plants and the creepy-crawlies which live on them. Baby birds can’t get enough to eat. Also, hedgerows are being destroyed and modern farm buildings have fewer nooks and crannies than traditional ones, reducing the number of nesting places. The decline of sparrows in cities is more mysterious. The introduction of cars and trucks led to the removal of horses from our streets. Out went the oats which fell from nosebags and the piles of dung on which insects thrived, a source of food for sparrow chicks.

Kate Vincent erected 600 sparrow nestboxes in Leicester and monitored the progress of the young. Pairs seemed to be able to raise their first brood each year but subsequent ones starved. Shortages of baby food were not the only problem.

Young sparrows seldom survived for long after fledging. Urban gardens, manicured and sanitised, appeared to be the culprits. Such habitats have poor biodiversity.

Dr Heij, in his research in Rotterdam, found that sparrows were still fairly abundant in the suburbs.

This seems to be the case here also. Sparrows have gone from city centre parks in Dublin but they are still found in residential areas such as Phibsborough and the Liberties, a few kilometres away.

For the record, the intrusion of the Domino Sparrow proved to be no great disaster. The world domino-knocking record was broken in Leeuwarden, but not for long. In the last few minutes of 2006, 4.3 million dominoes were knocked over in Beijing, setting a new record.

A radio documentary on the plight of the house sparrow will be broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 at 10am on December 30.

The sparrow exhibition at the Natuurhistorisch Museum, Rotterdam, runs until May 13.

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