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  1. Environment
  2. Biodiversity
1 December 2021

Where have all the sparrows gone?

For millennia the house sparrow has thrived alongside humanity, now its halved population offers a warning.

By India Bourke

If climate change places us in the realm of the uncanny or “unheimlich” (unhomely) — via the vast impacts of extreme weather and the uncontrollable power of wildfires and floods — the common house-sparrow embodies the opposite. The clue is there in its very name: house, home, hominin. A human bird.

For millennia the species has bridged the gap between humanity and wild otherness. By choosing to live right alongside us, it has matched modern humanity’s journey hop for hop. Spreading from its original habitats in the Middle East, Europe and Asia to all continents save Antarctica, the opportunists have built their nests everywhere from Neolithic-era thatched roofs to the nostrils of Teddy Roosevelt’s bronze horse in New York’s Central Park.

It is a ubiquity that breeds attachment. I am embarrassingly bad at identifying birds, yet sparrows’ small, cosy-looking brown bodies are so common that even I know their name. Whether passing a “quarrel” jostling on a pavement or rearranging themselves in a hedge, the seemingly cheerful creatures are familiar in both the most mundane and the witchiest senses of the word.

But where, just forty years ago, 500 million house sparrows populated Europe’s towns and countryside, today only half of that number remains. That’s a staggering loss of around 247 million birds, shows a recent collaborative study between the RSPB, BirdLife International and the Czech Society for Ornithology. And it’s only the tip of the iceberg: the study also recorded a total population fall among all EU breeding bird species of between 17-19 per cent, or up to 620 million individual birds between 1980 and 2017.

Within the UK alone, another new report, released on Wednesday by the RSPB, reveals that the sparrows’ fall is part of a wider decimation. Swifts, house martins, greenfinches and Bewick’s swan all now sit alongside the house sparrow on the UK’s newly revised Red List of threatened species. “This is more evidence that the UK’s wildlife is in free fall and not enough is being done to reverse declines,” said a statement from the RSPB’s CEO, Beccy Speight.

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The loss has pressing lessons to teach. In recent years, a number of academic papers have selected facts and statistics to suggest that biodiversity decline is not absolute. Some posit that even if certain species have reduced, others have filled the gaps — creating a “balance” of winners and losers in our messy Anthropocene world. 

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Such arguments have created a form of biodiversity loss “denial”, says the RSPB’s Richard Gregory. Yet the comprehensive EU study he co-authored should help settle the debate: some 900 million birds have been lost in total, with only an increase of 340 million birds from certain species. The net-decline is astronomic.

Adaptation should only be seen as workable to a point, explains Gregory. Even the most adaptable house sparrow cannot now keep pace with contemporary change and pressures. “Despite their flexibility, they’ve run out of road.”

That house sparrows are declining is not in itself new information. By the 1970s, birders were already noticing their absence from London parks, but the species had been considered so common that no data had previously been collected on its population spread. 

The mystery of the species’ ebb across the globe — from Moscow to Mumbai — has taxed scientific minds ever since. In rural areas, where overall bird-decline is steepest, pesticide-use and agriculture’s increasingly efficient forms of harvesting are likely suspects. In cities, everything from to pet cats, to sparrow-proof architecture, radiation, paved-over gardens and cleaner streets could be to blame.

In 2000, the Independent, a UK newspaper, even offered a £5,000 reward to the first person who could offer a definitive explanation. And eight years later a promising claim was made for the prize (though never awarded). Kate Vincent, a graduate student at De Montfort University in Leicester found that the young house sparrows in her PhD study were starving; the question to answer wasn’t where have all the sparrows gone, but where are all the insects?

Other studies came to different conclusions, however. At London Zoo, ornithologist Christopher Bell ascribed the decline of the house sparrows to the potential recovery of its predator species: the sparrowhawk.

This divide in attribution reflected a wider divide in perceptions of the state of nature. On the one hand, humanity could be seen as overseeing runaway biodiversity loss. On the other, the return of the alledged hawk could be read as a sign that nature was healing and predator-prey relations were becoming rebalanced.

That Bell’s suggested re-balancing should have linked the house sparrow to a notion of recovery is not surprising. For all the various identities that have been attached to them over the years (from mafia-esque thieves pinching grain from farmers’ fields, to symbols of lust and romance), the sparrow’s reputation for survival has remained consistent.

When humanity switched from horses to cars, house sparrows shifted their diets: instead of picking oats out of manure, they would now scavenge crushed insects from vehicle grilles. When our cities became noisier, some adapted their voices to compete. In New Zealand, an enterprising bunch learned to trigger the sensor on automatic doors to access dropped crumbs of human-food inside.

Yet more long-term studies put paid to the idea that sparrowhawks eat too many songbirds. And new findings, like that on the decline of EU breeding birds, show that even the house sparrow’s endurance can also only go so far. “We were able to show in a robust fashion that there is biodiversity loss and that it is happening all around you,” says Gregory, “and the common, abundant species like the house sparrow are losing out most.”

And it is perhaps also apt that the seemingly indomitable sparrow should be the messenger for this warning.

For centuries, failing to see change from the sparrow’s perspective has trailed destruction in its wake; perhaps most famously in 1950s China. After Chairman Mao declared war on the grain-eating birds as part of his ‘Great leap Forward’, citizens were instructed to bang pots and pans so loudly in the streets that sparrows would no longer be able to settle and nest. But this intervention had disastrous consequences: instead of improving crop-yields, the gruesome mass cull of sparrows led to a surge in harvest-ruining locusts which the sparrows had previously kept in check.

House sparrows may yet show that positive strength can lie in collective action too, Richard Gregory explains. Previous RSPB papers have shown that birds listed as endangered on European nature Directives have fared much better than species which are not, thanks to the added protection they’ve been given: white-tailed eagles, cranes, herons and egrets are all making a come-back. Conservation can make a difference, and in 2022 pressure should be put on governments at a national and international level to live up to the promising noises being made.

As Kim Todd has argued in her book Sparrow, the lowly creatures have come to represent the human condition as much, if not more, than any heraldic lion or grandiose stag. Fifty years after Mao’s sparrow massacre, an unofficial online poll in China favoured choosing the scrappy, unsung sparrow to be the country’s national bird. While in the US, during the 1960’s civil rights movement, the following gospel hymn became favoured by Dr Martin Luther King Jr: “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free; his eye is on the sparrow, I know He watches me.”

Humanity identified with the sparrow when it was abundant enough to be considered a pest. Now it is threatened, its struggle should speak to us even more.

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