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Sparrow decline alarms British bird-lovers

BeLoved sparrow
The house sparrow -- on the way out?  

LONDON (CNN) -- If Hamlet was right when he said, "There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow," then latter-day British bird-lovers must be exceptionally well provided for as the number of house sparrows in Britain plummets.

Rapid urbanisation and climate change are driving the common sparrow from cities and farmsteads more than 100 years after the industrial revolution spawned a population surge that made 'Passer Domesticus' the most ubiquitous bird in Britain's ornithological pantheon.

A recent informal bird "census" by Max Nicholson, a 96-year-old bird watcher, provided a stark picture of the sparrow's decline since he first conducted a count in London's Kensington Gardens in 1925.

CNN's Walter Rodgers reports possible reasons why the sparrow is disappearing

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On Saturday, Nicholson told Britain's The Independent newspaper this week, he was able to count only eight sparrows in Kensington Gardens - compared with the 2,603 birds he spotted on his inaugural survey 75 years ago.

"It's quite amazing," Nicholson told the newspaper. "I thought the sparrow numbers might go down, but I never, never imagined a decline like this. I never thought I would come back in a new century and see it."

Recent surveys by the British Trust for Ornithology, which regularly monitors breeding trends using reports from thousands of volunteer bird watchers throughout the country, corroborates Nicholson's findings.

According to the BTO, the population of house sparrows declined by around 50 percent in the British countryside between 1973 and 1997. The rate of attrition has been even sharper in London, where sparrow numbers have plummeted by 53 percent over a five-year span from 1994 to 1999.

The declines make the sparrow a ripe candidate for possible inclusion on a "red list" of species for priority conservation action.

The waning presence of one of Britain's most prevalent birds has raised eyebrows in environmental circles, where officials have reacted by promising to identify a culprit.

Britain's Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, unveiled plans on Monday to earmark £175,000 ($253,745) for an 18-month study into the possible causes of the demise of the sparrow and starling populations.

The inquiry will be undertaken by a team of experts from several major institutions, including the BTO, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Oxford University.

Unlikely candidate for sympathy?

The experts are expected to focus on declines in sparrow populations in both rural and urban areas, possible human influences -- such as pest control -- and the relative importance of demographic and environmental factors.

"I share the concerns of all British bird lovers about the significant decline in these species," Meacher said on Monday.

"I am confident that this major research project will help us to save our sparrows and starlings. It will give us a fresh insight into what is causing the problem and what we can do to reverse the situation."

The fact that the sparrow is drawing sympathy at all may come as a surprise to those familiar with its boisterous and plucky reputation.

Introduced to Europe from North Africa and Eurasia by the ancient Romans, the sparrow marked itself early on as the social gadabout of the bird world, gravitating to places where human beings clustered together and where grain was abundant.

Unlike blackbirds and wrens, which built their nests in hedges, sparrows preferred to rough it by building clutches of nests in close proximity in the crevices of buildings or in the hollows of farm houses.

Hopes that they would make effective pest controllers led to their introduction to North America in 1850. Within a couple of decades however, those hopes were dashed.

"At first the new immigrants welcomed this little bird of their homeland," notes the North American Bluebird Society.

"Within 25 years, however, they realised the seriousness of their mistake: the House Sparrow population had increased at an alarming rate, and the birds were causing extensive damage to crops and fruit trees. They were also taking over the nesting sites of native cavity-nesting birds."

In Europe, the sparrow has often been the butt of similar derision, though its gregarious nature made it hard to hate, experts say.

Dave Hole, an ornithologist at the Edward Grey Institute of Oxford University said sparrows followed a fundamental evolutionary rule: they went where the grain was.

"As soon as man said, let's start growing grain, they started knocking around farmers. Then, when they started building cities, it was like, 'OK, if you're going to provide us with a new home, we'll knock around with you as well' …The sparrow was considered a major pain. They were almost like the rat of the avian world."

Bird experts say a major blow for the sparrow population came when the motor car supplanted the horse drawn carriage shortly after the turn of the 20th century.

The sudden disappearance of horses from urban thoroughfares -- along with trails of feed that leaked from their coaches -- wiped out a major source of sparrow sustenance.

Unlike bigger birds such as wood pigeons or carrion crows, which often range up to two miles in search of spilled grain, the diminutive sparrow has a much smaller roaming range. Add to that their need to find insects to nourish their young, and you have a recipe for feeding hardships.

"Because of the house sparrow lifestyle, they are almost completely subsidised by human activities," said Andrew Cannon, organiser of the BTO's Garden BirdWatch project. "It's like tax relief on a mortgage that gets chipped away little by little."

Chris Mead, a BTO spokesman, said that while some London residents in the Kensington Garden area still report sparrows in their back gardens, the birds appear to be flying against the wind in their struggle for survival.

"If I were a house bird," Mead said, "I would come back about 105 years ago when there were horses everywhere."

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The British Trust for Ornithology
Oxford University Department of Zoology
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
UK Department of the Environment

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