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House Sparrows in your community Featured

Wednesday, 13 September 2017 10:08

Photo © Colin Leeves Photo © Colin Leeves

In the Spring 2017, CPRE Sussex joined with the Brighton and Hove Wildlife Forum (BHWF) to find out more about populations of house sparrows in Sussex. The excellent detailed work being done by BHWF was supplemented by a CPRE survey across Sussex more widely, to seek some broad information about how house sparrows were doing across Sussex at a time when their numbers nationally have reduced significantly.

We therefore sent out a questionnaire to all CPRE members and invited them to provide some information on sparrows in their local areas. Of approximately 1600 members, we received nearly 150 responses, and the information from these questionnaires is summarised in this report.

Significance of the data:

Although it was wonderful to receive so many responses, it is important to remember that these are spread geographically over East and West Sussex. Therefore they do not provide reliable information about specific locations. In addition, there were far more reports from rural and rural fringe locations than for towns and suburbs. Current research indicates that the major loss of house sparrows has been from urban locations, which is why the Brighton and Hove work is particularly significant and we look forward to the outcomes of that work over the next couple of years.

However, our results give us some indications of the health of house sparrows more widely in Sussex and provide some useful information which could form the basis of future research and survey work.

Locations of respondents 

The table below sets out the type of location from which we received reports and the frequency with which sparrows are seen in those different locations.

Frequency\\ Type of location Urban
Rural fringe  Village
 Regular  14  15  28  54  111
 From time to time  0  1 3  8  12
 Occasional  0  5  0  6  11
 Never  2  1  6  5  14
 TOTALS  16  22  37  73  148


These results are probably skewed by the higher proportion of responses from village or rural fringe locations. It is probable that such locations are generally more sparrow-friendly in that they are more likely to include older buildings with structural irregularities that provide good nesting habitat, and possibly natural food supplies. Hence, around 74% of village residents and 75% of those on the rural fringe reported seeing house sparrows on a regular, and often daily basis. That is clearly good news.

However, the figures for urban and suburban respondents are 88% and 69% respectively. This might suggest little difference between the types of environment, but that cannot be concluded reliably because the numbers, particularly for the urban and suburban categories are too small to be statistically significant.
I also wonder whether those who do see sparrows regularly might have been more likely to have responded to the survey than those that do not. It would be interesting to have much more data from people who do not see sparrows regularly.

The Impact of Local Environment:

We asked respondents if they had sparrow-friendly features in their local area/garden, whether they had a garden, whether they put out bird food and whether they had sparrows nesting locally.  Did these features make a difference to frequency of sightings? The results are summarised in the table below.

 Frequency\\ Type of location Garden? Sparrow-friendly? Feed birds?
 Regular  105  104  100  93
 From time to time  12  9  11  3
 Occasional  10  10  6  2
 Never  14  14  14  0
 TOTALS  141  137  131 98


These results show that nearly all respondents have gardens and mostly have sparrow-friendly features. They nearly all provide feed for garden birds and even those that do not have tended to stop doing so because of other issues, such as rat problems. Not surprisingly, those that see house sparrows regularly are likely to be aware of local nesting sites (see below).

Although the numbers from regular sighting respondents tend to suggest that a garden with good hedges where birds are fed have an impact, the analysis of the other categories does not necessarily support that conclusion. The majority of those who saw house sparrows less regularly or not at all also had garden features and fed the birds. This suggests that other factors may be more significant, including the wider local environment and the availability of suitable nest sites.  Of course the two most important breeding factors for any birds are good nest sites and suitable local food. 

Whilst writing this report, I am watching my own house sparrow population busily feeding their youngsters from my seed feeder, which suggests that garden bird food is important for house sparrows, whilst we know that some other species, such as blue tits, are far more reliant on good ‘natural’ food for their young.

Where do sparrows nest?

Many respondents told us where their local sparrows were nesting. It is likely that some of this information is slightly speculative and not based on actual sightings of nests, but it still gives us a good idea of actual nest sites.  The results were as follows:

Nest boxes 16
House roofs 44
Hedges and bushes 76
Other 11

I should say that nest boxes are not usually attractive to house sparrows unless they are sparrow-specific, i.e. they can accommodate several pairs together, as house sparrows are very much social nesters and don’t generally favour individual boxes (although there are exceptions. 

The traditional nest site for sparrows is house roofs through gaps in tiles and gaps under the eaves.  Of course the tendency towards fully repaired roofs and plastic facias is likely to have been a major problem for house sparrows. They will certainly use hedges instead, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they need to be very thick and less managed hedges rather than what many of us have in our gardens. Most gardens do not have that type of hedge any more and neither do many modern farms.

There is also an indication in the responses of the importance of rural/farm buildings and habitat. Buildings such as open fronted barns and wooden farm structures are ideal for sparrows and many other birds, but even these are disappearing in favour of immaculate metal structures with no ‘gaps’ to allow access. Farms also provide good sources of natural food for the birds.

It was very interesting to read the ‘others’ category for nest sites. These included:

  • Under hanging tiles 
  • Garden sheds
  • Hollow trees
  • Under ivy and other creepers growing on house walls
  • In a ventilator
  • Under a rhubarb’ forcer’  (definitely my favourite!!).

Why no sparrows?

We asked people who had no or few sparrows to tell us why they thought that was happening. The results are not strictly scientific, of course, but are extremely interesting.

Most of those people had bird-friendly gardens and a number had a range of wild birds visiting them regularly, but not house sparrows. They mostly had suitable local habitat such as open fields, woods, hedges etc.

Most who had been in their properties for some years commented on a steady decline in house sparrows over periods ranging from 10 to 20 to ‘many’ years, and in one case a decline over 50 years.  Long-term declines are a great concern with any species. Most creatures naturally have peaks and troughs in their numbers, but reports of long-term declines indicate that something is going seriously wrong.

Some people had their own theories about what might be driving sparrows away, including domestic cats, crows, magpies and gulls. Other theories included the loss of traditional farms, road developments, the loss of scrub due to the increase in deer, and crop spraying.

It is true that small birds do suffer from a certain amount of predation, but general research suggests that this is not a major factor in total population numbers. It would be interesting to know how much the gull population accounts for reduced numbers of small birds. Certainly gulls, especially herring gulls and black-backed gulls, can be very dominant in coastal areas.  I am sure that the other factors also play a part in population numbers.

But other research indicates that the major loss of population is in urban areas, so I suspect that the likelier ‘suspects’ are associated with building structures and probably environmental pollution.  More research is needed in these areas.

What can we do to help?

We must be cautious about drawing too many definitive conclusions from this survey, which is really helpful but still very small in statistical terms.
However, I do not believe we should do nothing whilst we wait for definitive research conclusions. A far better approach is to take what steps we feel may be helpful and see what happens.   My suggestions for things we can do are as follows:

Garden ‘improvements’ -  Tidy gardens are not wildlife friendly gardens.  If you are able to change your garden in a wildlife friendly way (not always possible, I know), it would be good to focus on insect attracting plants and developing good, thick, native hedges which you do not cut back very much or at all. Other thick, bushy shrubs are also valuable, especially in more remote or sheltered parts of the garden. Also, there is some evidence that thick wall-climbing plants can be attractive to sparrows.

Nest Boxes – Many of us could put up nest boxes suitable for house sparrows. These can be purchased from reputable suppliers and generally are designed for multiple occupation. Single boxes are generally not suitable for house sparrows. My personal tip is to use ‘woodcrete’ boxes, which are a wood/concrete mix that requires little maintenance (just annual cleaning out and disinfecting) and which are especially attractive to birds from day one as they do not retain any ‘new wood’ odours.  Sparrow boxes should come with instructions about the best types of locations.

Bird feeding -  House sparrows do seem to benefit from additional feeding, even for the little ones, so it is great to provide all year food if you can. This helps them to establish where regular food is available and should make nesting there more attractive, subject to nest sites being available. For those who have stopped feeding due to rats, you may want to try using a good quality seed feeder in conjunction with husk-free seed mixtures, which are available from good quality providers. These mixes create very little mess on the ground and therefore are less likely to attract undesirable visitors.

Roof spaces -  This is a tricky one. People generally don’t want roofs with holes in or gaps in their tiles or walls.  Nor do they want to artificially create such holes. All I can say is if you do have any potential access points for sparrows, and it is not essential to block them up, please leave them open.  There is a much wider point about how we build new houses in such a way that they can be wildlife friendly. There are some really good options available now for fitting nesting bricks or designed cavities into roofs and walls specifically for birds to nest in. We need more research to evaluate how effective these are, but it is an area that has largely been ignored by planners and builders, which is a shame when they could be incorporated in any new house for minimal cost. This is something that CPRE Sussex are looking at as a helpful way forward for a wide range of birds from house sparrows to starlings to swifts (and many more).

Future Research – This survey has been very encouraging in terms of the level of interest and response. The work being done in Brighton and Hove by the BHWF and its partners will give us much more reliable data to work on, and we are pleased to be part of that.

I would very much like to encourage CPRE members to continue their involvement and provide us with more information.   Things which you could do to help include;

  1. Encouraging other people to share with us their experiences of house sparrows in their areas.
  2. Carry out surveys of house sparrows in your area. We can provide advice on this to help you. Spring is the best time as the birds are most active and nest sites may be apparent. Please contact us for more details.
  3. Carry out surveys of house sparrows on local farms.
  4. If there has been an ‘environmentally-friendly’ housing development in your area, find out what facilities have been provided and how effective they have been.
  5. Continue to share your experiences and ideas with us at CPRE Sussex so we can continue to collect information that might influence future planning issues.

If you want get further involved in any way at all, please get in touch via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Graham Ault

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