image of sparrows at a bird feeder

Sparrows – 28th January, 2024

On Sunday 28 January, we did the Big Garden Birdwatch. For one hour, over this weekend, the public is asked to spend an hour watching and recording the birds in their garden or local green space, and then send their results to the RSPB. We chose the hour between 11am and 12 noon on the Sunday morning. With 1 in 4 birds in serious decline, it is important to monitor what is happening to them. Which birds are OK and which are losing numbers.

An important reason for bird decline is farm practises. This is an age old problem noted famously by Rachel Carson in her 1962 book Silent Spring. In those days, the worse culprit was the insecticide DDT. Chemical industries such as Monsanto hit back, calling her hysterical and unscientific for suggested their chemicals harmed wildlife as well as people. Both accusations were untrue; her book is well researched with lots of detail, and led to the growth of the environmental movement.

New pesticides and herbicides keep coming on to the market. These days we have Neonics. They are insecticides, intended to kill sucking insects such as aphids. The chemical is absorbed by the plant and transported to all its tissues (from root to flower) including the pollen and nectar. In addition to its intended target, they also hit bees and other pollinators, as well as worms in the soil, birds from eating the seeds, and aquatic life from the run-off into rivers and streams. Neonics are banned in the EU, but we have laxer policies and a strong farming lobby. The RSPB says: ‘The latest research suggests that intensive farming practices, particularly an increase in pesticides and fertiliser use is main driver of most bird population declines.’

Farming practises affect urban birds too, as town birds fly across farmland in their migrations, and pesticides and herbicides drift in the wind, off the land and into built up area.

The RSPB further say:

‘House Sparrows, Starlings and Skylarks are some of the worst-affected birds. But the overall picture for birds is just as concerning – since 1980, one out of every six birds has been lost. That adds up to the loss of 600 million breeding birds over 40 years, according to a 2021 study from the RSPB, Bird Life International and the Czech Society for Ornithology.’

There used to be a nightly murmuration of starlings, around sunset, coming off the trees in St John’s churchyard in Stratford. I recall, about 30 years ago, standing transfixed as a large flock spiralled and twisted into fantastic shapes. I haven’t seen it for many years.

The weather is a factor in the decline of bird numbers. Cold winters kill birds: from the cold itself and from starvation. Wet weather makes birds more prone to disease. Bird flu has killed millions. Climate change is also to blame. Birds are part of a food chain, and if one link is affected by increased temperatures, then all those dependent are affected too. Fires created in drought conditions will wipe out many birds, especially if they are nesting.

In the garden today, we didn’t see a wide range of birds. There were sparrows, blue-tits, a great tit, collar doves, and wood pigeons. We think a pair of blue-tits have selected our nest box under the sycamore to lay their egg. Lots of birds flew over but didn’t touch down. The brief was to only count birds which landed. We could hear green parakeets, while crows and gulls flew over, but were not part of our count.

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