Become a house sparrow expert

The charismatic house sparrow is a familiar bird to us, despite its rapid decline over the last 20 years.

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House sparrows. © John Harding/BTO
© John Harding/BTO

 

One of the highlights of my Norfolk wildlife patch are the groups of house sparrows along my road.

I’m extremely lucky, as the east of England is one of the areas in the UK where numbers of this little bird have dropped dramatically.

House sparrows have been declining for more than 20 years.

Between 1977 and 2011, we lost nearly 68 per cent of our population.

Since 1995, a quarter of English BTO Garden BirdWatch households and a tenth of Welsh and Scottish households have lost their house sparrows.

So why the decline?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer as to why the house sparrow population is decreasing.

There is a discrepancy in decline between different areas, with the rate in London and South East England much higher than that in Scotland, Wales or Ireland.

Rural areas suffer higher losses of house sparrows than surburban habitats.

In rural areas, it is thought that the decline is due to changes in farming practices.

In urban and suburban areas loss of nest sites is thought to be due to the construction of new housing and a decline in the availability of insects for chicks. 

© John Harding/BTO

House sparrows like to nest in cavities. © John Harding/BTO

Where to nest?

Although one of the reasons behind the decline is thought to be a lack of nesting opportunities, the house sparrow has very ably adapted to living alongside man.

The species likes to nest in cavities, and used to regularly nest under eaves, beneath roof tiles, and in any holes in the masonry of our buildings.

However, modern housing and our need to make our properties more energy efficient, means that a lot of places where house sparrows could nest have disappeared.

Thankfully, the brown and grey birds also nest in thick vegetation, steal house martin nests or sand martin burrows and one pair have even been recorded nesting down a coal mine! 

Attracting house sparrows to your garden

Thanks to their love of cavity nests, house sparrows take readily to nestboxes.

They nest colonially, establishing nesting sites and forming pairs quite early on in the breeding season.

You can try attracting them to breed in your garden by putting up a few nestboxes together, or by investing in a house sparrow terrace.

If you don’t have space to put up nestboxes, you can still attract house sparrows to your garden.

As communal birds, they are more likely to feed in gardens that have seed or peanut feeders with plenty of space for several birds to feed at once, and are within easy reach of cover.

House sparrows are relatively sedentary birds, and even dispersing young only move a short distance from the colony where they were born.

However, you can have the right garden for sparrows and put out the right food and you may still not see them. 

Recognising house sparrows

You may think that it is easy to identify a house sparrow, but many people still get them confused with tree sparrows, or even dunnocks, which are colloquially known as hedge sparrows.

Male house sparrows have a grey crown and nape, with brown sides of the head.

They have a wide black bib on their chest, and warm brown back, streaked with black.

Female and juvenile house sparrows are sandy brown in colour, with brown and grey streaks on their back and wings.

You often hear house sparrows before you see them, as they are incredibly vocal with a wide range of chirping and chattering sounds.

The British Trust of Ornithology (BTO) works in partnership with over 40,000 volunteer birdwatchers to chart the fortunes of UK birds.

Among the surveys that we coordinate is our popular Garden BirdWatch, the largest year-round survey of garden birds in the world.

Each month we highlight a bird for you to look out for in your garden.

For more information about Garden BirdWatch or to speak to the Garden Ecology Team please email gbw@bto.org

 

Read previous BTO Garden Bird of the Month blogs.

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