Will you spot a once familiar bird on World Sparrow Day?

House sparrow numbers have dropped rapidly over the last 100 years

House sparrow numbers have dropped rapidly over the last 100 years - Credit: Ben Hall

Norfolk Wildlife Trust Reserves officer Robert Morgan on why the sparrow is seen less these days.

There is a day of celebration for most things now, and March 20 marks World Sparrow Day.

I for one have always celebrated the humble house sparrow, but the day has developed out of a great many serious issues. It is now designated as a platform to raise awareness of all formerly common birds, particularly in urban areas.

The house sparrow, with the help of humans, has spread to nearly every corner of the world and was probably close to being one of the commonest bird species.

Sparrows used to be often seen near schools, especially at lunchtime

Sparrows used to be often seen near schools, especially at lunchtime - Credit: Harry Hogg

A lot of wildlife conservation concentrates on precious habitats or rare species, and it could be argued that there are still plenty of sparrows.

But the manner in which the house sparrow population has plummeted is staggering, and it is difficult to put across to younger people just how many there once were in our towns and cities.

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Formerly, with the exception of feral pigeons, most city dwellers’ only regular encounter with the natural world was seeing sparrows, in fact they were so commonplace as to be disregarded.

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Even among birdwatchers they were ignored, some bird-ringers even rung their necks to stop them being caught continuously in their mist nets – for familiarity breeds contempt.

As their name implies every house seemed to have a sparrow, or more.

At sunrise they would form a chorus-line along the guttering and in unison twitter a loud repetitive song.

They would hop among shoppers’ feet in the High Street in search of scraps or line up on park benches at lunchtime, although, the sparrows’ favourite haunt was the school roof.

They would wait patiently for the scattered contents of a tuck-box. Twenty, sometimes 30 or 40 sparrows would gather, but their feast was always hasty as at least one boisterous child would run wildly towards them, sending them up into the air in all directions, only to meet again on the safety of the roof.

March 20 is World Sparrow Day

March 20 is World Sparrow Day - Credit: Fergus Gill

House sparrows were an everyday part of children’s lives.

Since the 1920s a remarkable series of autumn bird counts have been carried out in Kensington Gardens, and it clearly illustrates the sad decline of the sparrow.

A total of 2,603 were counted in 1925, but numbers dropped to 885 in 1948, 544 in 1975, 81 in 1995, and only eight in October 2000, few have been recorded since.

Of course in 1925 there were still a great many horses in London, all requiring large quantities of oats, and old rundown housing provided excellent nest-sites. Despite this, in recent times 74% of the house sparrow population has disappeared.

This rapid decline was noticed by many people, questions were asked in parliament and cash prizes award for those that could find the reason.

The answer to their demise is still not clear, and as always probably a complex combination of explanations.

However, one notable discovery is that parent birds are not finding enough small invertebrates to feed their chicks during the first few days after hatching, perhaps a result of fewer urban gardens.

I’m lucky to have a well-stocked garden, it has boasted spotted flycatcher, brambling and blackcap, but never house sparrow and I miss them.

So this spring I have put-up a terrace of sparrow nest-boxes on the north facing wall of the house (they like to be out of direct sun), for if we can’t find space in our homes and hearts for the ‘poor ol’ sparra’ what hope is there.

Let World Sparrow Day be a warning for us not to take the natural world for granted and let our children, once again, grow up in a world full of sparrows

For more information see www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk