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The tree sparrow

David Chapman / 15 January 2019

The tree sparrow was once common but has seen massive decline over the decades. Find out about the conservation efforts to increase the population, and what you can do to help.

Tree sparrow
Tree sparrow photographed by David Chapman

We have just two species of sparrow in the UK, the tree sparrow and the house sparrow. There is a third species which is sometimes referred to as a ‘hedge sparrow’ but this is properly known as the dunnock and belongs to a different family of birds.

In recent years the plight of the house sparrow has been well publicised by conservation groups such as the RSPB. As its name suggests, this is a bird which lives in very close association with us but over recent decades we have been making our houses and gardens less welcoming to this long-term companion of ours. So much so that house sparrow numbers have declined from approximately 12 million in the 1970’s to about 5 million today, that’s a reduction of roughly 60%.

The decline of the tree sparrow

If you think that’s bad consider the tree sparrow. From the early 1970s to 2008 it is estimated that its population crashed by 93% and that’s after a slight recovery in numbers from 1995 onwards. Conservationists have been aware of the plight of the tree sparrow for a long time and a great deal of effort has been made over the last couple of decades to try to improve the situation, with some success, but among the wider public this is a species which is largely overlooked.

Over the last decade or so I think we have seen a much greater awareness of the natural world and the impact we are having upon it. Television programmes like Springwatch have brought home to us how special our wildlife is and encouraged us to do more to protect it. I wonder if the tree sparrow missed out on this recent pulse in interest by declining in a period of time when most people didn’t seem bothered.

I suggest that the tree sparrow – and many other species – is suffering from our shifting baseline syndrome. Put simply most of us can’t remember a time when tree sparrows were common so we don’t expect them to be common now. We don’t feel their loss. Luckily we have organisations such as the British Trust for Ornithology who have collected data over this period so we know there is an issue.

The impact of a changing landscape

Tree sparrows have long been regarded as birds of the countryside rather than the town but they were once much commoner in suburban and rural villages than they are today and on the continent they still nest in houses and barns alongside house sparrows. Their retreat into farmland has brought them many challenges. The intensification of farming has had a massive effect on them. They eat a mixture of seed and insects. They tend to eat the smaller seeds of flowering plants – weeds - found amongst crops rather than the larger seeds of the actual crops. In summer, their young depend almost entirely on insects for the first two weeks of their lives. With the use of insecticides and herbicides farmland has become a hostile place for tree sparrows.

There is hope. The tree sparrow population has started to respond to targeted conservation measures. They nest in colonies and will take to nest boxes where these are grouped together in suitable places. The RSPB have found that tree sparrows can do very well on farmland which is close to waterways, where presumably there are more insects. By providing supplementary seed for the tree sparrows through the winter their numbers have started to increase slowly.

How to help tree sparrows

Anyone who has a garden in a rural or even semi-rural area should be on the lookout for tree sparrows. There is no doubt that the provision of seed such as millet and sunflower hearts, through the winter, will have a positive impact on this species. They will feed from the typical tube-feeders or on the ground beneath.

If your garden attracts tree sparrows the next thing to do is to put up a set of nest boxes. It is possible to buy terraces of boxes, or make them yourself; the recommended hole diameter is 28mm.

There are other ways we can help in the longer term. All sparrows like bushes to fly to when there is danger. The thicker the bushes the better. I’m sure that the removal of shrubs from gardens and subsequent paving to allow cars to be parked there has had an enormous impact on sparrows. So plant some evergreen shrubs in your garden, keep them pruned but allow them to become large enough to protect birds. Dig a small pond to attract insects and don’t use insecticides in your garden.

Finally support conservation organisations such as the RSPB, BTO and Wildlife Trust by becoming a member. They encourage farmers to promote wildlife and our membership will help.

Tree sparrow facts

  • Is slightly smaller than the house sparrow;
  • Has a distinctive black spot on its white cheeks;
  • Has a chestnut coloured head;
  • Is more common in the countryside than in towns;
  • Because of a serious decline is red-listed.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.