How to help birds

Sparrow

House sparrows are in decline, so what can we do to help them flourish in our parks and gardens?

Have you ever walked along a pavement and noticed a cheerful bickering coming from the bushes or do the trees around your garden chatter and gossip endlessly?

House sparrows (Passer domesticus) used to be so abundant in the UK that we did everything we could to get rid of them.

We merrily trapped, shot, netted and even ate millions of sparrows. It was in the 1990s, long after the massacres ended, that scientist first noticed the populations declining, and urban areas were the worst hit.

There are now thought to be 10 million less house sparrows in the UK than there were 25 years ago. The blame has been pointed at everything from cats to air pollution, but recent research suggests two factors are having the most impact.

Lack of insects

Insects are a vital food source for sparrows, especially in the spring and summer when they are feeding their young.

Studies suggest that a decline in insects is resulting in house sparrow chicks being in poor condition.

The lack of insects is most probably down to urbanisation of our green spaces.

Short-haired bumblebee Sparrows love to eat bees and other insects

Meadows are being built over and gardens are over-tidied, diminishing the areas in which insects like to breed.

So you can really help out house sparrows by attracting insects to your garden. There are a number of things you can do:

  • Set aside an area of your garden to go wild.
  • Plant insect and caterpillar-friendly trees such as apple, oak, birch, willow and alder.
  • Plant for butterflies who will in turn lay eggs supplying your birds with caterpillars in the spring.

Attracting insects will also attract other wildlife such as bats, birds, hedgehogs and frogs.

Lack of nest sites

House sparrows are sociable birds and like to nest in large numbers.

They prefer to nest in colonies in hedges or high up in buildings, especially in the old crevices and eaves.

Modern housing and gardening frequently involve the removal of old-style eaves as well as hedgerows, effectively destroying the areas that house sparrows prefer to nest in.

Help nesting house sparrows out by putting up nest boxes for them near the eaves of your house. One nest box is unlikely to be enough for colonial nesting so put up a few side by side, or build a house sparrow nest box specifically designed for them.

Put your nest boxes over 2m above ground on north to east sides of your house to avoid the hottest sun and coldest winds.

Sparrows can be bullies so try not to put your nest boxes close to other birds that have already taken up residence in your eaves.

It also helps to plant hedgerows or shrubs and climbers around your garden boundaries in which sparrows can take cover or even build nests of their own. Hawthorn, elder, blackthorn and buddleia are all good choices.

Other ways to help

Sparrows are a species that will visit gardens and garden feeders, so providing food for them in your garden is a great way to boost their chances of survival:

  • Seed-bearing plants are good for adult house sparrows who need to keep their energy levels up for all that parenting.
  • Mealworms are a brilliant booster for house sparrow chicks, throw some out on your feeder with some mixed seeds.
  • The RSPB has great advice on what to feed wild birds in spring and also info about how you can promote good feeder hygiene to prevent disease in garden birds.
  • Control pests naturally instead of using pesticides to avoid depleting the insects in your garden that may provide sparrows with food for their chicks.
  • Provide a bird bath for birds in your garden to drink from and preen in.

It takes time for all birds to find new foraging and nesting locations so be aware that if there are no sparrows in your area already it may take a few years and even collaboration within your community before you find them visiting.

Be assured that in the meantime, attracting insects and putting up nest boxes is still likely to get you some feathered visitors.

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