Se­cret life of the spar­row

Canal Boat - - Waterside Wildlife -

While thou­sands in a flock, for ever gay, Loud chirp­ing spar­rows wel­come on the day”, or at least they did back in 1800 when poet Robert Bloom­field wrote The Farmer’s Boy.

Re­cent years have seen such a se­ri­ous de­cline in num­bers of the fa­mil­iar house spar­row in some ar­eas that ques­tions have been asked in the Houses of Par­lia­ment. Mod­ern farming and roof­ing through to the lost tra­di­tion of shak­ing crumbs from the table­cloth have been blamed.

As­so­ci­ated with hu­mans over mil­len­nia, cheek­ily ex­ploit­ing man’s rub­bish and waste­ful­ness, th­ese gre­gar­i­ous, squab­bling fam­ily groups are viewed with a mix of wry af­fec­tion and warm­hearted an­noy­ance. ‘Spadge’, ‘Spyug’… the many ver­nac­u­lar names are vari­a­tions on a theme de­rived from the Old English word ‘sparwa’ via Mid­dle English ‘sparewe’.

The male house spar­row has a chest­nut brown and black streaked back, con­trast­ing with pale buff un­der-parts, brown nape, grey cap, black eye stripe and black bib (larger on older birds). (If you are lucky enough to see a spar­row with the black bib and no grey cap on its chest­nut head, you are look­ing at the much rarer tree spar­row.) The fe­male is rather drab by com­par­i­son and eas­ily con­fused with other “lit­tle brown jobs”.

By Fe­bru­ary they are re- es­tab­lish­ing their ter­ri­tory and pair bonds – house spar­rows mate for life. In folk­lore, the spar­row is a sym­bol of hu­man at­tach­ment and is sa­cred to the god­dess Venus. See­ing a spar­row on Valen­tine’s Day meant that a girl would marry a poor man but be happy.

Spar­rows are among the most seden­tary Bri­tish birds and quite hap­pily nest close to their colony, of­ten re-us­ing a nest from pre­vi­ous years. They pre­fer to nest in a cav­ity, fre­quently in the eaves or other crevices of build­ings, or in a hedgerow. The male does most of the con­struc­tion and he seems to sim­ply stuff any ma­te­rial into the hole, then sits chirrup­ing, adopt­ing a squat, fluffed-up pos­ture.

Eggs can be laid at any time of year, but two or three broods are usu­ally pro­duced be­tween March and Au­gust, with both par­ents shar­ing the in­cu­ba­tion and feed­ing du­ties.

In­ver­te­brates and seeds both form im­por­tant parts of the diet. Newly in­de­pen­dent young gather in large flocks, of­ten mov­ing to farm­land in au­tumn where you can see them feed­ing with finches and other small birds. As win­ter pro­gresses they re­turn to their nest­ing colony sites.

The in­ces­sant chirp­ing call of the spar­row is both a con­tact call within the colony and to pro­claim nest own­er­ship. You may be­come aware of a strange quiet and still­ness along the tow­path, and it usu­ally means rain is on its way – birds can spot a com­ing storm be­fore we do: “…on a sud­den, if a storm ap­pears, Their chirp­ing noise no longer dins your ears: They fly for shel­ter to the thick­est bush; There silent sit, and all at once is hush.” (Stephen Duck, 18th Cen­tury poet).

Shel­ter along the tow­path may take the form of a reed bed. Reeds pro­duce their seeds late in the year when other plant food is scarce, so spar­rows of­ten over­win­ter in reed beds.

Many small birds roost among reeds, but they don’t fall off their perch while asleep. As they come in to land on the reed, they bend their legs and this au­to­mat­i­cally tight­ens their toes around the stem. The bird will re­main safely perched as long as its legs stay bent.

With the on­set of early spring come the first flow­ers, and spar­rows are no­to­ri­ous for tear­ing apart prim­roses and cro­cuses – es­pe­cially yel­low ones. Yel­low col­oration is as­so­ci­ated with flow­ers that have a par­tic­u­larly strong at­trac­tion for pol­li­nat­ing in­sects, and tends to oc­cur to­gether with a rich sup­ply of nec­tar. Pe­tals are ripped apart so the spar­row can get to the nec­tary at the base. We aren’t the only species with a sweet tooth.

‘You may be­come aware of a strange quiet and it usu­ally means rain is on its way – birds can spot a com­ing storm be­fore we do’

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