Eleanor Reast, RSPB
Why study the ubiquitous Cockney sparrow?
House 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
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.