Sparrows may feel commonplace, flocks of them chattering together and whooshing from tree to bush to bird feeder, crowding out the smaller, more colourful birds in your garden.
But a new study has found the house sparrow has suffered a huge population decline across Europe, amounting to 247 million fewer house sparrows than there were flying about in 1980.
Scientists from RSPB, BirdLife International and the Czech Society for Ornithology teamed up to analyse data for 378 of 445 bird species native to EU countries.
They found we’ve lost one out of every six birds over nearly 40 years — a total of around 600 million breeding birds. And it’s the house sparrow that’s seen the largest drop in population — sustaining a 50% hit — followed by the yellow wagtail (97million fewer individuals), starling (75m), and skylark (68m).
Richard Gregory, head of monitoring at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science and one of the paper’s authors, calls that 600m stat “deeply depressing” and adds, “What’s worrying is that it’s been happening almost unnoticed, invisibly, quietly in the background, we’re losing biodiversity.”
The figures can be overwhelming, and it’s very easy to feel despairing — how can so much decline have happened so quickly? How can we possibly reverse that? But Gregory says it’s important to remain connected to the issue and remember how it “relates to the land around you”.
He explains: “The suburb, the town, the countryside, that’s where year on year, inexorably, wildlife is being lost. Nature is becoming poorer through time; the richness and the variety is going down. And in time, that’s going to make a big difference to people’s lives.”
If things don’t change, when it comes to enjoying wildlife in your garden “you’re going to see less and less; the spring is going to be so much quieter without birdsong if it carries on in this fashion, and we don’t do something urgently to turn things around.” Practical steps you can take in your own plot So what can we do as individuals? For starters, feeding the birds is a “very sensible thing to do,” says Gregory.
While the evidence around why the house sparrow is declining is mixed at the moment, they were once a bird of cornfields and farmland, explains Gregory. “The way we farm the land [now] has changed,” he says, “so that really does exclude them.”
More nature-friendly farming, alongside land that is specifically set aside and managed with wildlife in mind, is vital, while in more suburban and urban areas it’s about providing variety, vegetation and appropriate food sources for birdlife — namely seeds for sparrows, as they historically feed on grain.
“You providing seeds through the wintertime — but particularly after Christmas and into the new year — can make a big difference, because that’s where the hunger gap is for these birds in the environment,” says Gregory. “Provisioning carefully, providing the right kind of seeds for birds, can make a big difference for their survival and their populations.”
He also suggests putting up nest boxes, rewilding parts of your outdoor space and thinking about planting trees — whether at home, or helping local groups to do so.
It’s also important to support conservation organisations and wildlife trusts that are working more widely to aid biodiversity “the birds, as well as mammals, invertebrates, butterflies, bugs and reptiles”, says Gregory, who adds that many groups “live off brilliant, volunteer support” and are always in need of more help.
Then, he says, “think about the way you lead your life — the ecological footprint you, your family and friends have, going forward,” whether that’s how much you fly or drive, or what you consume and waste. “If we all make small changes, we can make a really big difference.”
There is hope — we have the tools to turn things around Undoubtedly the study shows a massive decline in the most abundant and common bird species in Europe, but at the other end of the spectrum, it also shows that the rarer and scarcer birds in the dataset are doing really quite well, says Gregory, and that’s largely down to EU habitat regulations and directives that “put in place really specific conservation actions to help them”.
“We do know how to recover nature,” says Gregory, noting that we have effective conservation toolkits and knowledge that can and is already used to restore habitats and recover species. “We just need greater action and urgency and very strong biodiversity targets, by governments and lots of different stakeholders, to make that happen.”
Essentially, says Gregory, “we just need to ramp it up massively with transformative change.”
Starting with our gardens is a small but crucial step.