I from such worlds removed to this sad world
Of London we inhabit now together,
O Sparrow, often in my loneliness,
No other friend remaining, turn to thee…
At dawn thy voice is loud a merry voice
When other sounds are few and faint. Before
The muffled thunders of the Underground
Begin to shake the houses, and the noise
Of eastward traffic fills the thoroughfares,
Thy voice then welcomes day…
And thou, O Sparrow, from the windy ledge
Where thou dost nestle creaking chimney-pots
For softly-sighing branches ; sooty slates
For leafy canopy ; rank steam of slums…
Thou brave and faithful Sparrow, living link
That binds us to the immemorial past,
O blithe heart in a house so melancholy,
And keeper for a thousand gloomy years
Of many a gay tradition, heritor
Of Nature’s ancient cheerfulness, for thee
‘Tis ever Merry England ! Never yet,
In thy companionship of centuries
With man in lurid London, didst regret
Thy valiant choice, yea, even from the time
When all its low-roofed rooms were sweet with scent
From summer fields, where shouting children pluck
The floating lily from the reedy Fleet,
Scaring away the timid water-hen…
These are excerpts from a very lengthy poem The London Sparrow by the ornithologist W.H.Hudson (1841 – 1922), written around 1920. A time when poems didn’t have to rhyme but were probably still expected to scan. If you wish to read the whole thing, go here and do a search using “sparrow” or “hudson”.
Hudson could not have predicted that barely 100 years later, the ubiquitous little bird so associated with our city would have almost disappeared entirely. The most severe decline in sparrow numbers has happened very recently, since the 1990s. Proper scientific studies of the sparrow population started not long after Hudson’s death, in the 1920s. Most of them have been concentrated in Kensington Gardens, with counts as follows:
By 2002 a 60% population decline over the previous 25 years saw the house sparrow placed on the Red List of Species of Conservation Concern. The fall in numbers of the early 20th Century has been attributed to the loss of horse-drawn traffic and its food source of grain, oats and manure. Subsequent losses are more puzzling but the main factors offered are: increase in domestic cats; loss of suitable domestic garden habitats; and since the wholesale introduction of lead-free petrol, the consequent adverse effect on aphids and garden invertebrates as a food source for birds.
As a townie I have little expertise in such matters, so don’t know what to advise on helping to rejuvenate one of London’s beloved historical characters. Our back garden is frequently roamed by local cats. In relation to food sources, I haven’t seen grey squirrels mentioned in the studies: they’re everywhere.
Oh well, if any sparrows are reading this, I’m rooting for you!
There’s a BBC Radio 4 programme on the topic from 2009 available on iPlayer, here. Note other links too.