Secret life of the sparrow
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’