Tree Spar­row

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: DAVID TOM­LIN­SON

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

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