'Something nasty' in the air for the poor old sparrows
Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30
As evening draws in, hundreds of sparrows gather, with much gossipy chatter, on a couple of shady evergreens beside where I stay on holidays in Iberia.
You could almost set your watch by them, as they usually arrive at 6pm for their roost from various foraging places, such as café terraces, where they actively seek crumbs at customers' feet in this seaside town.
I, also, am setting out for something to eat - they, lucky birds, having eaten their fill before making themselves comfortable where warming lights attract as darkness and temperatures fall.
It is a vivid reminder of Dublin's city centre as once it was, when thousands of pied wagtails descended on the old London plane trees along O'Connell Street with a great buzz. This was comforting to those in cinema queues eagerly shuffling their way towards the lights and sounds of Pathe newsreels and the main feature to follow. The pied wagtail population was unique and healthy for many years. It had become an adopted symbol of the city, sometime in the late 19th century, on the logo of the Dublin Field Naturalists' Club, of which I once became a member - much later, of course!
The wagtails have gone and even sparrows, once abundant in the suburbs, are now rare. It is difficult to visualise them as being so numerous that one naturalist wrote that their "antics provoked indignation". They bred prodigiously, you see, copulating in a public way which linked them with sex and lechery. The ancient Egyptians recorded this, as did Shakespeare in Measure for Measure, saying: "…sparrows must not build in this house because they are lecherous" (act 3, scene 2).
Sparrows' rate of reproduction was phenomenal, and millions of birds populated six continents. The Chinese once tried to wipe them out. In Europe, thousands were trapped and eaten to cull flocks ravaging grain crops. Up to the early 1900s sparrow pie was still a popular dish in rural England.
But the past half-century has seen a catastrophic crash in numbers, with more than 90pc disappearing - especially in urban areas on these islands.
Scientists have come up with various reasons, ranging from predation (cats, magpies, etc) to house-building, mobile phones and cars. But starvation seems to be principal culprit.
A UK ornithologist, Dr David Hole, has fingered the old bugbear: farm modernisation. No weeds, clean farmyards, no spilled grains and cleaner parks are the reasons. Food supply in winter is critical, and it is not there. Six million birds have disappeared.
Another scientist, Dr Denis Summers-Smith, has also conducted surveys in Britain. He has raised pertinent questions, asking: "Wild birds are an indication of the quality of life, so what does a 99pc decline in sparrow numbers tell us? Is something nasty going on that might affect us all?"