Saving Southwark’s sparrows

Leo HornakBy Leo Hornak

Sparrow Watch, a month-long program to highlight the dramatic decline in London’s bird population, drew to a close this week at Southwark’s Bernie Spain Gardens – but for bird-lovers the fight to save the species is far from over.

At Bernie Spain Gardens and other London sites, volunteers have been monitoring the bird population and leaving out suitable food for them to feed to their young. Using ‘mist nets’, which catch birds without harming them, the volunteers tag the sparrows, weigh them and measure their wing length, so that the overall health of the population can be assessed.

Sparrow population dangerously low

“It takes two years of training to learn this,” explained bird handler John Mallord, of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB): “We make sure everyone who works with us knows exactly how to deal with the birds safely.”

Sparrows were once so common in the capital that people were employed to cull them, according to the RSPB. In recent years, however, shrinking habitats and lack of food have forced down the number of sparrows and other small birds to dangerously low levels. Over the last 15 years the population has fallen by 68%, and is expected to drop even further over the next five years. Built-up urban areas such as Southwark have suffered from a particularly steep decline.

Part of the difficulty is the short foraging range of house sparrows: most never stray more than 1,000 metres from their home. Garden conversions for parking, and the popularity of ornamental plants and shrubs are also to blame; removing places where insects and other bird prey once thrived. Each sparrow nest needs a constant supply of worms and beetles to raise its young.

According to RSPB spokesman Tim Webb “House sparrows have sent us an end-of-year warning… We can prevent London from becoming a wildlife-free zone, but we need to act now”.

Leo Hornak

What we can do to help

There is plenty that people can do to help save London’s birdlife. Leaving the right foods on a bird table is an important step: “Garden seed and kitchen scraps are good, but white bread has little nutritional value”, explained Tim. “If you don’t have wholemeal bread, you can use cake crumbs”. Birds also have a low salt tolerance, so salted nuts or crisps are a bad idea.

The project has been extremely popular with residents. Tim Webb said that the RSPB ‘couldn’t believe how many people have taken these few remaining birds to their hearts.”

Occasionally, the project catches a bigger prize. “Once we got a sparrowhawk in the mist nets here,” remembered John. “That was a good sign for future; where there are healthy predators, there will probably be healthy prey populations too.”

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