March 2019: Nature Watch Blog

February 25 2019

Nature Watch

I have been listening to the house sparrows a lot lately. They bustle around our bird feeders, they gather by the railway station at the small town in Bedfordshire where recently I have been spending more time than usual, and also at the Horfield allotments where I should spend more time than I do. Their sparrow-talk is unmistakeable – urgent, varied and jumbled. It is called “social singing” and sounds like a rowdy family all trying to talk at once.
When you first hear it, you might think a row has broken out, especially when the babble is punctuated by a sudden pause. Thirty seconds can pass in ominous silence; I imagine the sparrows thinking of one of their gang ‘he’s done it this time…  he’s gone too far…!’ Then a couple of irrepressible individuals venture a suggestion or two and the prattle begins again.  A tumble of squeaks, whistles and chirrups, not tuneful but not argumentative either, this is just every-day sparrow-life.
Of all our birds they are the most social: they feed, nest, travel, roost and sing together, gregarious in all seasons and a pleasure to watch. Our neighbours put out mealworms just before they sit down to breakfast and are daily rewarded by the lively company of 20 or so sparrows who have learned to rely on this generosity.
The house sparrow has many common names including spuggy, sprog, spadger and spadgwick and in Welsh they are called roofbirds because they so often nest there.  In fact, they are so strongly tied to us that they are only to be found near human habitation. They have spread around the globe, having forgotten their wild origins, either following humans of their own accord or, in some instances, being deliberately introduced by European migrants to distant lands.
These two in the photo are young birds – the yellowish marks around their beaks show that they are still being cared for by their parents. The colourful gape is there to prompt the adults into offering food every time the young one opens its mouth. The females are similar in plumage to these juveniles, plain but neat little birds, but the males have a bold face pattern. They sport a black face-mask and bib with grey cheeks and cap and chocolate brown on the sides of the head which gives them that unmistakeable ‘cockney sparrer’ air.
They are so familiar that they are over-looked in favour of the more obvious charms of goldfinches and blue tits; but watch them whilst you can. They are still widespread in the UK, with a population estimated at over 5 million but this is down some 70% in the last 40 years. With such a common bird it is easy for us to become complacent but where would we be without our accompanying house sparrows? And what will they do if they cannot manage to live with us, now they are no longer able to live without us!