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.