The "chattering classes" are back in Dulwich - in my garden, at any rate. They were targeting sunflower seeds in a hanging feeder, chirping away as they played what looked like a game of perch-swapping Musical Twigs.
But were “our” house sparrows really back or was this a false dawn? The prognosis wasn’t good. House sparrows, once a common sight to Londoners, were last year listed, for the first time, on the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan as being in urgent need of special protection. Luckily, this noisy, healthy-looking young trio of visitors had breeding potential. I was determined to put all available experts‘advice into action to encourage them to go forth and multiply. I was “ticking all the right boxes“, including the category marked nest boxes. Yet a state-of-the-art artificial sparrow terrace (sparrows are highly sociable) made of pulped wood chippings and concrete on the front of our house had remained as resolutely unoccupied as a Dulwich Park Park-Keepers’ lodge, despite the fact that it was only inches away from the below-eaves entrance to a(pre-loft-conversation)sparrow nursery in the roof space.
By the time of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) Big Garden Birdwatch the following January, I knew that my regular house sparrow grouping had swelled to a regular six-some (although they unobligingly failed to materialise all at the same time in order to qualify for an official recording that weekend). So maybe the bumping up of the bird-feeding regime, making it all-year-round, increasing the number of feeders to three, plus widening the variety of contents to include a special high-energy, no-husks mix from the start of nest-building through to the end of spring had helped?
It was not until I found myself having to raise my voice to counter the racket coming from the pittisporum close to the back of the house, that I realised, last summer, that there was indeed a colony of some considerable size now “hanging out” in my garden.
For the benefit of those among you who would also like to help reverse the alarming trend of house sparrow decline, I have noted the three things which may have contributed to this recent improvement:
- Support feeding throughout the whole year. There were fears that continuing supplying extra food in gardens may discourage parent birds from hunting for vital protein (insects). On the contrary, it would seem to have turned out to be a life-saver.
- Providing suitable habitat: that means high, dense, all-year-round cover, sheltering birds from the elements and from predators. My own garden contains several bird-encouraging features, including a tall (almost roof-height) shrub that has not been topped out or pruned back to make it fit any garden-design brief. But this pittosporum (not a native, but for this conservation purpose, what does that matter!) did not attract a single roosting, or for that matter, gossiping bird until my neighbour’s climber, a white Solanum, a variety of perennial nightshade, began to interweave through its branches, joined in its dizzying ascent by one of my climbing roses. The symbiosis has proved to be a gale, wind and sleet-defying filigree of vegetation that the birds really like. It goes to show that, when it comes to wildlife gardening, maybe we should all be thinking vertically, as well as “laterally“.
- Providing specialised feeds and siting feeds in different places to suit the needs of different species is also proving successful. One such is nyjer seed which comes from the Ramtil plant, a native of Ethiopia. Siskins and redpolls are also known to be attracted to it. As the seed is so fine, a special feeder is advised and a tray can be attached to prevent wastage - though the squirrels may enjoy it! A mixture with no wheat helps to keep the numbers of pigeons and doves down, so allowing other ground-feeding birds to clean up the wastage.