Giving our House Sparrows a Home

by Sarah Dobson Urban Gardens Birds Author - Anne Hyatt

The House Sparrow (scientific name Passer domesticus) is one of the most iconic urban birds in Britain, sharing our urban areas with us. In fact they have spread out from Europe and Asia to be found on all continents, making them probably the most familiar wild animal in the world – given their close associations with humans which date all the way back to the Stone Age!

The numbers and familiarity of the House Sparrow has led to it frequently being used to represent the common and vulgar, and their high fertility meant their eggs were once believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac! Historically, because of their great numbers, sparrows used to have a price on their heads, and during World War II there were anti-sparrow clubs persecuting them to protect our wartime food supply.

House Sparrows at Hove Lagoon (c) Colin Leeves

Although we are all still used to seeing this social little brown bird hop and shuffle around our gardens, this perky bustling bird is now in fact in serious trouble! Over the past 25 years – or one human generation - there has been a worldwide decline (hence there is a World Sparrow Day each year on 20th March) and here in the UK a nationwide collapse in house sparrow population sizes.

Recent estimates suggest a drop of 71 per cent between 1977 and 2008, with substantial declines in both rural and urban populations. This is particularly acute in urban areas; for example in Greater London they declined by 68% between 1994 and 2009 to the point where they have virtually disappeared from the city’s centre. It would be terribly sad if the same thing happened here in Brighton and Hove!

Their decline is believed to be primarily a result of the loss of suitable habitat and a reduction in their insect food availability. A shortage of nesting sites caused by changes in urban building design is probably a factor. Declines in insect populations result from an increase of monoculture crops, the heavy use of pesticides, and the replacement of native plants in cities with introduced plants and parking areas.

House sparrows do not move around much, so once a colony is gone it is difficult to restore. However there are practical steps which we can take to help them.

Brighton and Hove’s Wildlife Forum – working with the RSPB, Sussex Ornithological Society, the University of Brighton and other environmental groups – are developing an exciting new project over the next 3-5 years which, it is hoped, will lead to an increase in house sparrow numbers in our city.

Brighton and Hove’s House Sparrows Project will:

  1. Raise awareness of the plight of these birds
  2. Take practical steps to help them
  3. Monitor their progress

The first stage of the project will be to investigate and work to understand how Brighton and Hove’s House Sparrow population is faring.

We’re putting a call out for volunteers with a few hours to spare to survey house sparrow numbers in Brighton and Hove during April or May on a day which suits you. Training will be provided in late March. If you’re interested in taking part please contact or on our website

We would also like to hear about house sparrows in your neighbourhood, and would be particularly interested to hear about any colonies which you remember from past years, but have now disappeared. Please let us know through our online public survey form. We’re then recording this information on our Distribution Map (below) to build up a picture of the sparrow situation in the city.

3 simple steps to help our house sparrows that we can all take have been identified by a number of different studies in recent years:

  1. Nest Sites – Sparrows prefer to nest in a hole in a building or a nest box (with an entrance 32mm diameter) preferably at least 2m above ground level. They like to nest in colonies, but the entrances ideally need to be at least 30cm apart in special nest boxes called ‘sparrow terraces’.
  2. Food – They eat seeds, mainly from the ground plus some berries such as elder. Insects such as caterpillars and aphids are crucial for the growing chicks. Providing mealworms (dried ones are fine!) during the breeding season will help the chicks to thrive. Filling our gardens with insects and avoiding use of chemicals will of course benefit.
  3. Habitat – Sparrows appreciate gardens that include native plants and are a little untidy! They enjoy gossiping sessions (‘chapels’) in thick bushes or hedges and love bathing in the dust.

House Sparrow (c) Colin Leeves

Brighton and Hove’s House Sparrows project team are always looking for new members to help with surveying local House Sparrow colonies, building sparrow boxes, running workshops and events for the public, along with fundraising and publicity. If you’re interested in getting involved, please contact us at .

For more details about the Brighton and Hove House Sparrows project please visit our website and you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Please help us to make the once-common commonplace once again!

Anne Hyatt

Brighton & Hove’s Wildlife Forum

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