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Page last updated at 13:24 GMT, Friday, 10 July 2009 14:24 UK
The decline of the Tree Sparrow
By Alan Larkman
Wildlife Watcher

Nestling nearly ready to leave the nest.
Nestlings need weeds when they leave the nest - Photo by George Candelin

I've had an interest in wildlife for as long as I can remember.

My parents' lives were plagued by newts in fish tanks, tadpoles in washing-up bowls and caterpillars in jam-jars, and on one occasion a garage full of flies when my maggot-breeding experiment worked too well!

I grew up near the sea in Portsmouth, and shoreline creatures were a big part of my early life.

I wanted to be a biologist, and now I make a living from the subject I love.

I moved to Oxfordshire some 25 years ago for work reasons, and my wildlife interests switched to the countryside. However, I was disappointed to find that large tracts of farmland seemed almost devoid of wildlife, and birds seemed thin on the ground compared with at the coast.

Sadly, many of our small farmland birds have suffered severe declines over the last few decades, and none more so than the Tree Sparrow. This 'country cousin' of the familiar House Sparrow was once a common inhabitant of our farms and hedgerows, but has now vanished from many of its former haunts.

According to the British Trust for Ornithology, the Tree Sparrow has decreased by an appalling 97% in England over the last 40 years, and it is on the 'Red List' of birds of greatest conservation concern.

Why have these birds declined so dramatically? The Tree Sparrow's staple diet is small seeds, which for centuries were provided by the weeds that were abundant in arable fields. Farmers have always tried to keep their fields relatively weed-free, but with only limited success until the advent of modern chemical herbicides.

Now, most cornfields contain very few weeds, and Tree Sparrows, along with other small farmland species such as the Linnet, Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting, struggle to find sufficient food.

Alan with Tree Sparrow nestling
Life isn't certain for a Tree Sparrow nestling - Photo by George Candelin

The shocking decline of our small farmland birds has passed almost unnoticed by the public and even many sections of the conservation movement. However, pioneering projects in Rutland and Wiltshire, among others, have shown that Tree Sparrows can respond to quite simple conservation measures.

Just providing seed food, either on the ground or in hanging feeders, and putting up suitable nest boxes can produce substantial increases in existing colonies and promote establishment of new ones. Inspired by these efforts, myself and a group of Oxford Ornithological Society (OOS) members resolved to do something to help Tree Sparrows.

We identified a series of a dozen or so potential sites close to the Thames in Oxfordshire, extending roughly between Buscot and Farmoor, and began a programme of feeding.

One of the sites selected was the BBOWT reserve at Chimney Meadows, which turned out to be a very fortunate choice for us. Tree Sparrows had not been seen there for some years, but the site manager, Dr. Kerry Lock, was enthusiastic and the local volunteer group transformed themselves into a highly professional manufacturing team, turning out industrial quantities of high-quality nest boxes.

The boxes were both affordable and of an ideal design for Tree Sparrows (unlike many commercial boxes), and about 70 of them are now in place at several of our sites.

The feeding effort throughout the winter paid dividends, with Tree Sparrows reappearing at sites where they had been absent for years. This spring, 23 of our boxes were used for nesting and 38 clutches of eggs have been laid so far.

I'm quite an emotional person, and I always find the sight of Tree Sparrow nestlings in our boxes strangely moving. They manage to look cute and grumpy, feisty and helpless all at the same time, and I find them irresistible. I hope these pictures convey something of their charm.

At Chimney, Tree Sparrows started using the feeding sites in March, and we were treated to the sight of adults feeding recently fledged youngsters in late May. Clearly, Tree Sparrows had returned to the reserve and bred successfully there, and the same thing happened at one of our sites near Buscot.

It's still early days - next year we hope to expand the feeding programme and put up more boxes. Hopefully the birds will feed and breed in even greater numbers.

If anyone knows of other Tree Sparrow colonies near our project area, or sees them in their garden, or feels they might like to contribute in any way, we would be delighted to hear from you.

We are grateful to the Trust for Oxfordshire's Environment, Thames Water, Quadrant Heating Ltd. and the OOS for financial support, and to the Environment Agency, the National Trust, and individual farmers and landowners for access and often much more. Not least, we are indebted to the Friends of Chimney Meadows for their craftsmanship and industry.



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