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London's Sparrows in Free Fall


LONDON — They disappeared so quietly that few noticed them go, nor perceived the silence they left beneath the thrumming layers of city noise.

In their dusty gray-and-brown jackets, house sparrows were so common that their steep slide in major British and Irish cities went unremarked for years.

"The decline has been massive. In London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dublin, the population has fallen by 99% since 1980," said Dennis Summers-Smith, one of the world's leading sparrow experts. "This is almost extinction."

The house sparrow will go on Britain's endangered species "red list" this year. Yet it is still officially a pest that can be exterminated. In fact, sparrow-proof bird feeders are still sold in London.

In the U.S., the birds are often seen as a kind of feathered mice--not just drab and dull birds, but invaders. Yet Londoners have a special affection for these perky little creatures, which were always a garrulous companion to the city's cockneys, no matter how humble the garden.

And British bird-watchers drift out of their serious, scientific commentaries into sentimental reflections on sparrows' antics and their affinity with people.

The fate of the sparrow has ornithologists mystified, and the Independent newspaper has offered a epartment5,000 [$7,600] reward to solve the puzzle.

"There are lots of theories but no good answers yet," said Keith Noble, London sparrows officer for Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. He cited food shortages, predators, changes in farming methods and pollution as possible causes for the birds' disappearance. Summers-Smith warns that the decline of the sparrow may point to dangers for humans not just in London, but in major cities everywhere. The numbers of sparrows are dropping in many large European cities as well as the big cities in Britain, he points out.

"If one bird declines dramatically, something funny is going on, and since most of us live in cities, I think we ought to know why it's happening," Summers-Smith said by phone from his home in northern England.

"Birds are indicators of the quality of life,'' he said. "Is the house sparrow the modern equivalent of the miners' canary, telling us something nasty is going on in our cities?"

The sparrow population in Britain is reported to be 673,000, a 57% drop since 1979.

Squinting at the pockmarked walls of one of London's most famous landmarks, the Tower of London, sparrow researcher Sandy Alcorn, 48, strained to hear the once common chirrup.

Last year, she counted eight sparrow nests in and around the tower, this year only four.

"Maybe when I come back this time next year, there'll be no sparrows left here," she said. In 1925, ornithologist Max Nicholson, 21, counted 2,603 sparrows in central London's Kensington Gardens. This summer, only four male sparrows found their way into the park, and not one found a mate.

Last year, there were hatchlings, but none survived.

Nicholson also believes that the decline of the sparrow contains a vital message for humans. Speaking at his Chelsea home, he said humans are less sensitive than birds to environmental changes.

"If we were like 17th century Londoners and could never get out of here, we'd be less happy to live here," he said.

When Nicholson started counting sparrows nearly eight decades ago, the bird was so common it was ignored by most ornithologists.

"Everybody knew the sparrow, of course. Very few paid much critical attention. Even among the bird-watchers it was considered rather boring. You went out and found rare birds in the Highlands rather than spending your time on sparrows in London," he said.

"I saw the sparrow [numbers] as being on the crest of a wave,'' he said. "The idea that the sparrow would practically disappear from London never occurred to us.''

Hundreds of Londoners are taking part in a survey--sponsored by the London Biodiversity Partnership, a coalition made up of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other wildlife and ecological groups--to count sparrows in their neighborhoods. The aim is to find pockets where the bird is more plentiful and uncover clues as to why.

Amanda Rudd, a project manager at the London Wildlife Trust, said people were so used to thinking of the bird as common that their disappearing act took the city by surprise.

"But when you ask people, 'When was the last time you saw one?' they say, 'I don't remember,' '' she said.

The house sparrow also is declining sharply in the U.S., but there is no alarm among American ornithologists because the bird is an imported species: 100 house sparrows were brought to Brooklyn in 1851 and 1852, while others were introduced to San Francisco and Salt Lake City in 1873 and 1874.

"Folks have generally frowned upon it [the sparrow]," said Keith Pardieck, head of the North American Breeding Bird Survey at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. He confirmed a 2.5% annual decline in the house sparrow population since 1966.

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