the GiGLer

The newsletter of Greenspace Information of Greater London CIC

Counting Sparrows

Eleanor Reast, RSPB

Why study the ubiquitous Cockney sparrow?

House Sparrow, © Andy FisherHouse sparrows are no longer ubiquitous. Both rural and urban populations in the UK have shown a severe decline. In London numbers fell by a shocking 68% between 1994 and 2000. The drop in numbers has been so dramatic that sparrows are now “red-listed” as a species of high conservation concern. The reasons for its alarming disappearance from our towns and cities are complex but research has shown one crucial factor to be a lack of invertebrates with which urban house sparrows feed their young and a shortage of seeds for adult birds to eat.

In areas as large and complex as London, it is increasingly important to work with partners to share knowledge and expertise.

Did you count your sparrows this year?

Back in 2002, the RSPB and London Biodiversity Partnership launched a public survey, “Where have all the sparrows gone?”. It asked residents if they had house sparrows in their gardens or local area. The survey was hugely popular and the findings gave the RSPB valuable information about where sparrows were still to be found, as well as highlighting the plight of this once prolific bird. The results found population numbers were greater on the outskirts of the city, with numbers gradually diminishing towards the centre and absent from its heart.

Ten years on, the RSPB, together with London Wildlife Trust, GiGL and other members of the London Biodiversity Partnership, ran the Cockney Sparrow Count; a repeat of the original citizen science survey. The aim was to update the distribution map, inform further house sparrow research and continue to raise awareness of the plight of house sparrows in London. It also provided participants with positive actions they can undertake for wildlife.

GiGL, with their wealth of experience in this area, created and hosted the Cockney Sparrow Count survey form. To give continuity and allow fair comparisons, the 2012 survey asked the same questions as those posed in 2002.

The results are in

Results from the 2002 Cockney Sparrow Count SINCs © GiGL

The RSPB received regular updates from GiGL over the four week survey period. GiGL then had the mammoth task of analysing the data and trying to make sense of what it was showing! Preliminary findings show little change over the decade but on average there appear to be more birds per sighting in the east than in the west of London. The average count of sparrows per sighting was slightly higher this year at eight, compared with six in 2002.

Direct comparison is not possible because of the many variables inherent in citizen science but general trends have been revealed. The findings align with anecdotal and scientific studies. More analysis of the results is planned by the RSPB’s conservation science staff.

The findings dramatically improved the baseline data GiGL holds for this once common and widespread bird. We’d like to thank everyone who submitted their results and urge people to continue submitting sightings of house sparrows using GiGL’s online survey form.

The Cockney Sparrow Count once more opened Londoners’ eyes to their natural surroundings. The survey’s popularity in the capital can be attributed to the close working partnership between GiGL, London Wildlife Trust and supporters of the London Biodiversity Partnership.

The RSPB will be sending all participants packs of specially selected wildflower seeds to sow, building on their empathy for this small bird to encourage positive action in their gardens and outdoor spaces benefiting house sparrows and other urban wildlife.


  1. Dave Dawson on December 2012 at 12:03 pm

    The introductory paragraph follows the usual RSPB line: “research has shown one crucial factor to be a lack of invertebrates with which urban house sparrows feed their young and a shortage of seeds for adult birds to eat.”

    There are two problems with this assertion. First, is that all the excellent RSPB research on the sparrows has been after the decline, when sparrows were, as they still are, in much reduced numbers and missing from many places that they used to breed. Any findings on what these greatly different populations do now is of dubious relevance to the processes that reduced their numbers in London to under 5% of previous levels.

    Second is that the crucial RSPB research, which involved the experimental provision of food for nestlings and latterly also for adults, has still not been published in a refereed scientific journal. Those of us who have had presentations of the results remain unconvinced that the findings justify the conclusions and await this publication.

    Meanwhile there are other studies showing strong correlations with sparrow populations (e.g. one on the spread of the Sparrowhawk across the UK, and another on microwave radiation). Correlation is not necessarily cause and effect, and we still do not know whether it was food, predation, microwaves, disease, or what. So, it’s dangerous to posit just one of these as the cause – actions based upon this may prove ineffective and so people could be misled.

  2. Tim Webb on December 2012 at 4:55 pm

    All research comes with caveats and this is doubly true of the Cockney Sparrow Count. It was a citizen science project and gave us a flavour of the situation for London’s sparrows.

    The previous study Dave takes exception too, also came with clearly hoisted warning flags. It has yet to be peer reviewed but there is little doubt that food availability is ONE, I repeat ONE, of a number of complex factors having an impact.

    Subsequent research found that different grass and wildflower seed mixes in urban parks DO increase biodiversity and food availability. The RSPB has not said this is the answer to lift house sparrows out of their red-listed category.

    Research constantly eats away at the unknown and we focus on the known but unproven unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld might have said. The unknown unknowns, such as microwaves, are being investigated too. Predation has been shown to have a limiting factor in localised areas, but cannot account for the well proven national population decline, although I accidentally mislead you here by saying national as sparrow numbers in Wales are rather different! I’ve no doubtb we will eventually understand all the unknowns; known ones, suspected ones and unknown ones.

    The RSPB does not posit a single theory for sparrow decline, but we do know more now than we did a decade ago and continue to build on that learning. I would urge people to continue to enjoy grasses and wildflowers for their biodiversity and aesthetic values. However, I acknowledge taking this literally would suggest I favour monocultures rather than the habitat appropriate to the location. This too would be misleading and I support Dave Dawson in urging the application of common sense when considering habitat management.

    We are applying and sharing actions based on best available knowledge and will continue to review research and refine actions for maximum conservation gain rather than wait until all the unknowns are known.

    Inaction from research, as has happened in other cases, has left us writing off thousands of ash trees or shooting badgers. If anyone wants to fund the next bit of research into sparrow decline, I’m waiting for your call.

Leave a Comment