Sparrows are so much a part of my garden that I really should have included a page about them before now. They are, though, quite nervous birds, which meant that I wasn't able to get photographs of them easily, to illustrate a page, before I had a digital camera and could have several attempts at photographing them.

It's also the case that they've generally been seen as quite common birds - until recently - and this, and their rather drab plumage, means they've been taken for granted. We tend to admire birds with a melodic song, or stronger colouring.

I skulked about behind some plants and managed to get a few photographs of the sparrows visiting the garden in June 2004. In the last month or so the young ones have been coming into the garden, this year's chicks, fed by their parents and also feeding themselves from the sunflower seed and other food that is now put out all year round.

A background bird

The humble sparrow has been in the headlines in recent years because of declining numbers. Here, the population seems healthy and a large number regularly visit the garden and congregate in the rowan tree, or in trees in nearby gardens. They nest under the eaves of our house, too, every year.

They don't sing tunefully like blackbirds or robins do, but their chirping and chirruping is a constant background noise - so taken for granted that I'm not generally aware of it. On the occasions I've tried to make recordings in the garden - for example when the frogs were croaking - it's only when I play the tape back that I realise how the chirping of sparrows comes out so clearly as a background sound.

The charm of sparrows

Sparrows have some endearing habits. They're charming when they're hanging on to a thin stem of a climbing rose, swaying around, trying to collect greenfly. I assume that's what they're after from my climbing roses, and I'm pleased to see it, as they and the ladybirds help to clear the garden of aphids.

They're particularly cheering to see when they're bathing in the bird bath. I've a stone water bowl which sits on the ground in the garden as a permanent feature. The sparrows usually use this bowl at around midday, when they gather for communal bathing. The blackbird bathes alone, and sometimes evicts bathing sparrows. Sparrows all get in together, or sit on the edge and get splashed with water by the sparrows in the middle who are bathing enthusiastically. It's very much a group activity.

If you do listen to sparrows, they have a varied call, and a whole range of chirps and cheeps must be transmitting some useful information to the sparrow group. I'm afraid though that I have no idea what they're saying - though I did wish that I could understand it while I was hanging around in the garden's undergrowth trying to get pictures of them for this page. I thought it might help if I could decipher "cheep - cheepcheep" into something like "Don't go down there to eat that food, there's a mad human lurking in the shrubbery pointing something at us". Unfortunately I couldn't understand a cheep they were cheeping.

Going back some . . .

It's the sparrows, really, that made me realise I should feed the birds in winter. There's a large old laurel shrub at the front of the house, in our small front forecourt, and I remember the first winter after we moved in seeing a dead sparrow on the front wall, just below the laurel. At the time, I remember thinking it was sad, and remembering a very maudlin song by Simon and Garfunkel, about no one loving a little sparrow (not one of their best, I have to say). It was only later that I realised that I could maybe help the little sparrows by putting food out for them.

The bird feeding started with a couple of those red plastic nets full of nuts - a rather half-hearted attempt, but I didn't know any better. Later I realised that sunflower seed was preferred, and that sunflower seed hearts were even better. But sparrows will of course eat breadcrumbs too, and are generally grateful for anything - humble and undervalued birds that they are.

Since I've heard that numbers are declining, and that some gardens have no sparrows, I no longer take them for granted. Over the years, in this garden, I've developed an appreciation of the humble sparrow.

Group of sparrows, adults and young, feeding in the garden, June 2004

More information (external links)

RSPB sparrowatch

BTO web - the house sparrow

British Garden Birds - detailed information on the house sparrow

Sparrows feeding in the garden, June 2004.

Photos: sparrows in the garden, June 2004

Sparrow feeding

Sparrow investigating the bird table

Sparrow feeding

Sparrow with open wings landing on the bird table