One man’s attempts at establishing a Tree Sparrow colony near his home
WHEN I MOVED to rural Suffolk from Kent in 2004, I was expecting to see a markedly different variety of birds in my garden: I wasn’t disappointed. I missed the Nuthatches – no Beech trees nearby – but was delighted with the Yellowhammers. I was thrilled when courting Grey Partridges appeared in February, while, in the spring, Sky Larks sang all day from dawn to dusk. However, one bird was missing and that was the county avifaunas. Claud Ticehurst writes at humble sparrow. I’d lived with House Sparrows length about the bird in his History of the Birds all my life, so I missed their cheerful presence. of Suffolk, published in 1932. Curiously, I discovered that all the He notes that “it breeds in many localities and neighbouring villages have strong House is general distributed but is not plentiful except Sparrow populations but the nearest was more in a few places”. However, he does add that he than a mile away, while few birds are as suspects that “Tree Sparrows are often sedentary as Passer domesticus. overlooked by those who do not know them very I had been living in Suffolk for exactly a year well”, adding “within my own experience one and a week before the very first sparrow may go far through the country-side and not see appeared in the garden, on 20 October, 2005. one and then come on quite a number”. Much to my surprise it wasn’t a House Sparrow, Intriguingly, he notes “the numbers resident in but a Tree Sparrow; it was on a feeder filled with the county are as nothing compared with the husk-free black sunflowers. numbers that come in autumn from overseas or It stayed for 10 minutes, allowing me to grab pass south along the coast”. He then goes on to my camera and get two pleasing shots before it describe “a heavy coastal passage of birds that flew away, never to be seen again. There were starts at the end of September, continues on no more sparrow sightings of any sort until most days throughout October and reaches the 2008. The next bird was seen on 5 October, and maximum in the last half of the month. After once again was never seen again. about 10 November, the stream slackens.” So, after four years in Suffolk, I had only The next county avifauna was Bill Payn’s The recorded these elusive sparrows twice, and they Birds of Suffolk (1962). Like Ticehurst, Payn seemed destined to be nothing other than rare considered that the Tree Sparrow was probably visitors to the garden. overlooked, “but I think that there are few Intrigued to find out more, I delved into the parishes in the county where it does not breed”.
He echoed Ticehurst’s view that the bird was “a pronounced migrant. Many reach us in October and November from overseas”. Tree Sparrow populations have long been known to be cyclic, reaching a peak and then suddenly collapsing for no apparent reason. By the time Steve Piotrowski’s Birds of Suffolk (2003) was published, the Tree Sparrow had become thinly distributed, with a rapid decrease since the mid-1980s. Piotrowski does quote some fascinating migration figures for the early 1960s, such as the 8,000 logged at Minsmere between 3 October and 17 November 1961, including no fewer than 2,350 in three hours on 1 October. By the turn of the Millennium, the Tree Sparrow was close to extinction in Suffolk, though a few breeding pairs still clung on. The bird’s perilous status prompted the Suffolk Wildlife Trust (SWT) to launch its Tree Sparrow Project, which ran from 2008-2011. Its main aims were to raise public awareness of the bird’s plight, to stabilise core populations and create opportunities for the species to thrive, disperse and re-colonise. To achieve this, SWT offered starter packs and information leaflets to people willing to encourage Tree Sparrows into their gardens: the pack included nestboxes, bird feeders and seed. Quite how successful the project was remains debatable, but it was a brave and worthwhile effort, and it coincided with the sparrows becoming better established at Bowbeck, where I live. In October 2009, a pair put in an appearance on 20 October, but as in previous years, they didn’t stay around. Exactly a year later, another pair arrived in the garden, but this time they must have liked what they found, as they remained, and, by December, four were feeding here regularly, with numbers increasing again in the New Year. By the following autumn a pattern was starting to be established: the first birds would appear in early October, and then numbers would increase during the autumn and winter, reaching a peak of 20 plus in February. The SWT had established that Tree Sparrows are keen consumers of red millet, a seed that few other seed-eating birds are keen on. I experimented with both red and white millet, but in the end concluded that my usual food (Special Mix 50:50, from Jacobi Jayne) was as good as anything. I did provide another feeder at the end of my field, a couple of hundred yards from the house, where I fed a coarse mix of wild bird food bought cheaply from a local garden centre. This included a lot of wheat that both the sparrows and Yellowhammers seemed keen on. In mid-winter, the field feeder usually drew more birds than the garden feeders, a reminder that Tree Sparrows are probably happier in hedgerows than gardens. Despite the best efforts of local-ringer Patrick Barker and his friends, trying to catch the sparrows at the feeders with mist nets proved extremely difficult. Tree Sparrows are extraordinarily wary little birds and are adept at avoiding the nets. On one occasion the team ringed 60 birds of a variety of species: this included Great Spotted Woodpecker and Yellowhammer, but only a single Tree Sparrow. In March 2012, I was rewarded by the sight of the first sparrows prospecting my nest boxes (mainly Schwegler). It wasn’t until 8 April 2013, however, that I first saw birds carrying nesting material into a box.
Tree Sparrows are nothing if not fickle, so I was delighted when a single individual appeared in the garden in August – my first-ever August record