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Could the cockney sparrow be making a comeback in Tower Hamlets?

PUBLISHED: 07:00 01 October 2018

House sparrow Passer domesticus, male, in garden flowers, feeding. Pic: Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)

House sparrow Passer domesticus, male, in garden flowers, feeding. Pic: Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)

© RSPB-IMAGES AND ITS IMAGE CONTRIBUTORS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This image is protected by international copyright laws and dist

The cockney sparrow could be making a comeback.

Dr Caroline Nash and Dr Stuart Connop. Pic: JON KINGDr Caroline Nash and Dr Stuart Connop. Pic: JON KING

The east end used to be a house sparrow stronghold but annual surveys by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) found populations crashing year after year from the mid-1970s.

They plummeted by around 70 per cent at the end of the 1990s.

Since then numbers have stabilised and there are high hopes they are starting to recover in the borough.

Results from the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch survey which sees people reporting feathered friends spotted from their windows suggests the humble sparrow is gaining in numbers.

Tim Webb from the RSPB. Pic: TIM WEBBTim Webb from the RSPB. Pic: TIM WEBB

Urban ecologist Dr Caroline Nash from the University of East London (UEL) suggested one reason for the drop was a lack of food with development and modern building design piling pressure on the species.

“Loft conversions have a lot to answer for,” Dr Nash said before explaining that sparrows like to nest under the eaves of houses but noisy human neighbours occupying roof space put them off.

Recent research suggested air quality played a role in their decline.

The top five birds in Tower Hamlets in descending order after the top placed sparrow are the blue tit, pigeon, goldfinch and great tit.

Garden birds: Starling, Sturnus vulgaris, at bird feeders. Pic: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)Garden birds: Starling, Sturnus vulgaris, at bird feeders. Pic: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

Goldfinch numbers have rocketed by 100 per cent in the borough according to the RSPB.

Birds are a good way to monitor the environment because they are easy to see. They need fresh water, clean air and plenty of greenspace providing natural food and secure nesting sites.

When bird populations drop, it’s time to sit up and take notice of what’s happening to the environment – worms and fish are harder to count.

Drops in sparrow, starling and blackbird numbers prompted conservationists to monitor other species revealing hedgehogs, bats and fish were also suffering declines in number.

Blackbird Turdus merula, male, on garden lawn.  Pic: Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)Blackbird Turdus merula, male, on garden lawn. Pic: Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)

A review of hundreds of surveys found some 60pc of native wildlife declining in the city.

Results for Greater London found grey squirrels and foxes dominating gardens with frogs in third place and toads in fourth. Hedgehogs were in sixth being seen in about a quarter of all gardens.

One threat facing species is the demand for housing land. This has turned the pressure up not just on green spaces but brownfield sites, industrial land developed in the past but no longer used. These can be wildlife havens.

Dr Stuart Connop from UEL explained: “They can be incredibly important sites. They are not disturbed very often and that suits nature.”

Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis, feeding from a garden feeder. Pic: RSPB (rspb-images.com)Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis, feeding from a garden feeder. Pic: RSPB (rspb-images.com)

Green spaces around new housing developments can be heavily maintained with grass cut, flowerbeds pruned and hedges trimmed regularly.

But this doesn’t suit species which prefer wild spaces left unkept.

This includes the favourite food of birds – bugs. But “creepy crawlies” don’t get the credit or encouragement they deserve, according to Dr Connop.

“Insects have quite an image problem but they are the foundation stones for all these services. They pollinate crops and make the soil. Brownfield sites can be rich in these populations but they are at risk of disappearing,” Dr Connop said.

European hedgehog Erinaceus europaeu. Pic: rspb-images.comEuropean hedgehog Erinaceus europaeu. Pic: rspb-images.com

Private gardens also make a huge difference to bird numbers according to the RSPB.

The charity’s Tim Webb said: “The issue of our shrinking wildlife is now widely recognised and accepted. That’s one battle won, but the war against pollution and unsustainable development continues.

“The new front is private gardens, where we need more people to give nature a home by greening the grey, allowing plants to breathe and wildlife to thrive.”

He explained that removing paving from gardens would help create a well-balanced natural environment good for nature as well as people’s physical and mental health.

Natterjack toad Epidalea calamita. Pic: Andy Hay/rspb-images.comNatterjack toad Epidalea calamita. Pic: Andy Hay/rspb-images.com

“This is something people in Tower Hamlets can do to help. No Government, charity or corporation is going to be able to legislate for or carry out this work. It’s down to individuals,” he said.

The next RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch takes place over the last weekend of January. Registration opens mid-December. Visit rspb.org.uk/birdwatch for more details.

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