The humble house sparrow

Andy Crory, avid birdwatcher and nature reserves manager at Ulster Wildlife, takes a closer look at one of our most familiar birds.

House sparrows may not be the most colourful bird in the UK, or the most impressive singer, but they’ve long been one of our favourites, because they live in such close proximity to people. Their friendly little faces are a common sight in many parks and gardens, chirping away from a hedgerow or happily hopping around outdoor cafes and picnic areas, hoping to swoop in and steal any neglected scraps.

All my life house sparrows have been a constant presence – they bred in our garden and my walk to primary school was punctuated by the noise of the colonies in the gardens and hedges along the road.

I’ve recently had to move house and one of the things that partly traumatized me after nearly 40 years in the same place was what would happen to the house sparrows? Obviously, they weren’t the same individuals that I’d seen as a child (they only live for 3 years in the wild) but I’d known this little colony for a long time. As I grew up several of the hedges in my town were ripped out (sometimes to make room for a replacement hedge!), gardens were tidied or turned into more space for parking, and housing has become a lot less bird-friendly. For these reasons, as well as changes to agricultural practices, house sparrows became thinner on the ground as the years went by – not just around me, but all across Northern Ireland. This increased the importance in my mind of the little flock that I knew – by leaving them it almost felt like a betrayal, which was pretty daft as there was no way I could take them with me!

Moving into the new property, one of the first jobs (literally before I moved any other possessions out of the car) was to erect the bird feeders and, within minutes, the first bird I saw at them was a house sparrow. Things change, they never stay constant but that doesn’t mean things have to be radically different and for me, that’s what house sparrows represent. They’ve evolved with us, they depend on us and it’s very much a two-way process – imagine a world without them?

More to the point, during lockdown this species has often been the closest point of contact to the natural world for so many people. You don’t even need to see the birds themselves, they could just as easily be sitting chirping away in a hedge but it’s enough to take you to a happier place.

House sparrow snoozing 

House sparrows are still one of the UK’s most common birds (in fact, they’re the third most common breeding bird, with around 5.3 million pairs), but they are a lot rarer than they used to be. According to the latest report on The State of the UK’s Birds, since the late 1960s we have lost around 10.7 million pairs of house sparrows. This drastic decline has earned them a place on the UK Red List for birds, which essentially flags them as a species in need of urgent action.

There is hope for house sparrows, with signs of slowing declines and even a slight recovery in some populations in recent years. If we can find more space for sparrows, offering them opportunities to nest, and help our insect populations to recover, our hedges can once again be full of their joyful chirps.

You can help them at home by leaving parts of your garden to go wild, encouraging the insects that they need to feed their young. If you have sparrows visiting, a row of nest boxes or a special ‘house sparrow terrace’ near your eaves could give them a place to nest – they’re gregarious birds that like to nest close to other sparrows. You can also help by supporting our wildlife gardening campaign, ‘Let Nature In’ to help welcome nature friendly plants and beneficial insects into your garden, as without these our insect-eating birds don’t stand a chance!

Pledge your support to Let Nature In