Help save the sparrow

Caroline Cassidy

The house sparrow has, in years gone by, been perceived as a chattering pest, and was once in abundance in Britain's countryside, cities and gardens. But in the last 25 years, it is estimated that there are some 10 million fewer sparrows in the UK, and the RSPB now list these gregarious little birds as needing urgent conservation action.

Save the sparrow
Save the sparrow

Pic: Getty

Though many possible factors have been cited as to the reason for the sparrow's decline, recent research suggests lack of insects, a vital food source, and a lack of nest sites are at the root of the problem. If you are keen to see the humble sparrow back in your neighbourhood, here's what you can do to help.

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Attract insects
Insects are not only essential for adult sparrows, but are vital for keeping chicks healthy during the breeding season in spring and summer. With natural green spaces such as meadows on the decline, gardens kept tidy and pesticides used to keep bugs away, sparrows are struggling to find this vital food source.

By attracting insects to your garden you'll also encourage other wildlife to visit, creating a healthy ecosystem, where bats, birds, hedgehogs and frogs will help to keep the pests under control. Try setting aside a small area of your garden to 'go wild', or plant insect-friendly trees such as apple, oak, birch, willow and alder.

Butterflies provide a particularly good source of food for sparrows, as caterpillars will be eagerly snapped up. Plant buddleia, wall flower, aster, hyacinth, hydrangea and lavender to encourage them into your garden.

Try to leave areas of longer grass during the winter to allow insects to shelter and hibernate, and don't go mad with the mowing come March, as the grasshoppers, beetles, spiders and lacewings that sparrows feed on are more likely to hang around where there is shelter.

And where at all possible, opt for natural, organic methods of pest control.

Make nesting easy
Just as their natural food source is becoming harder to come by, the sparrow's favoured nesting sites are also on the wane. A sociable bird, the house sparrow prefers to nest in numbers, building colonies in hedgerows or in the eaves, nooks and crannies of older buildings. New-build houses do not, therefore, cater for the sparrow's nesting needs, sending them elsewhere in search of a home.

Nest boxes placed near the eaves of your house will help to encourage them to breed, though you'll need to place a few side by side for the birds to take advantage. There are also nest boxes available that are specifically designed to fit the sparrow's colonial nesting preference. As long as they are two metres above the ground and facing north to east to avoid a hot sun or a cold wind, with a little bit of luck they will find their way to your garden.

Alternatively, encourage them by planting hedges, shrubs or climbing plants such as hawthorn, elder and honeysuckle and ivy around the edges of your garden to provide thick cover and maybe even a nesting site. Trim the branches back during winter (after any berries have gone) to encourage thick growth come spring and summer.
A helping hand
Since the sparrow is in serious decline, it may need a little extra encouragement to return to your garden. Seed-bearing plants such as dandelion, chickweed and shepherd's purse, as well as geranium, honeysuckle and wallflower, will all provide a food source for adult birds with young, while the odd mealworm mixed with seed on a bird feeder will certainly not go unnoticed.

It is also important to keep any bird feeders clean, so sweep away any food that has not been eaten within a day or two. Last but not least, supply a bird bath filled with fresh water where sparrows and other birds can drink and bathe to their chirpy heart's content.

Have you noticed sparrows declining in your area? Are you taking steps to encourage them back into your garden? Leave your comments below...