Jenny Tweedie, from RSPB Scotland, brings you this blog on how house sparrows are fairing in Scotland and a helpful guide on telling the different types of sparrow apart in time for this year's Big Garden Birdwatch!
Cheerful chirps and boisterous behaviour
With their cheerful chirps, and boisterous birdfeeder behaviour, house sparrows remain one of our commonest and best loved garden birds. Year after year, they rank highly in the Big Garden Birdwatch, taking the number one spot in all but the most rural of regions. And for those of us with feeders in the garden, it would be unusual not to see the local troupe at least once a day.
But for some time now, it’s been clear that all is not well with our sparrows. Although still numerous, their overall numbers have fallen sharply in recent years, with a shocking 90% decline in some urban areas. And what’s worrying is that we still don’t know exactly why.
It’s probably a combination of factors. Gardens have changed dramatically in recent times, with more patios and decking meaning a decline in the types of plants that might support sparrows by encouraging insects in the warmer months, and providing seeds in the colder ones. Fewer chunky hedges reduce available nesting sites, and with less cover around, sparrows, with their short, stubby wings, may simply have become more vulnerable to predators.
We’re still seeing them at our feeders because any remaining sparrows in an area will naturally drift towards the offer of free food, and people who feed the birds may be more likely to have a wildlife friendly garden anyway, offering lots of things that the sparrows need to survive, like good nesting sites and shelter.
But while house sparrow numbers continue to slip (though the decline may now have slowed in some areas), a rather odd thing showed up on last year’s Big Garden Birdwatch results in Scotland. Tree sparrows, a much rarer species usually associated with farmland, came in as the 16th most common bird seen. This was a jump of four places up the rankings in only a year, overtaking birds like the greenfinch and the jackdaw.
So what’s going on?
Just like house sparrows, tree sparrows recently suffered a terrible decline in numbers, with an estimated population drop of 93% between 1970 and 2008. The population is thought to be now slowly increasing, but why are they suddenly showing up in gardens? Have they figured out that bird feeders can help them survive through the worst winter weather when other food supplies are short? Are they adapting to a more urban lifestyle, or simply finding themselves more and more in our back gardens as towns and villages expand?
It’s going to take a bit more research to figure it all out. But in the meantime, this is just one of the many, many mysteries of the bird world that the Big Garden Birdwatch can help us start to unravel.
We really want to know how many sparrows (and other birds!) you have in your garden, so please do register to take part in the Birdwatch on the weekend of January 30 and 31.
And if you’re unsure whether you’re looking at a house sparrow, a tree sparrow, or indeed a hedge sparrow, here’s a quick guide to help you out.
Immature males and females can be hard to tell apart, but adult males have distinctive markings. These are still the most common sparrows in Scotland.
With adults, the most notable feature is the cheek spot, but they’re also more chestnut-coloured than house sparrows and slightly smaller. Females look pretty much identical to males.
Hedge sparrow, commonly called a dunnock, or sometimes a hedge accentor:
Much greyer birds, with less distinct markings. You’re more likely to see dunnocks on the ground rather than on a feeder. Again, females and males are very similar.
Have you ever wondered how nature reserves come to be? RSPB Scotland purchased a piece of land known as Crook of Baldoon six years ago and this is the story of how we've been transforming it into a haven for wildlife ever since. If you enjoy part I, look out for part II - we'll be posting it in the next couple of weeks.
Crook of Baldoon: Part I
In 2010, RSPB Scotland launched an appeal to buy a piece of land on the west coast of Wigtown Bay.
For anyone who doesn’t know the area, it’s a beautiful part of Dumfries and Galloway: a huge crinkled inlet off the Solway Firth, with pretty little coves and vast expanses of mudflat and saltmarsh stretching away under an endless sky. It’s long been a place of significance for people, with evidence of ancient religious activities at sites like Whithorn, and a long history of trade from the once busy ports at Wigtown and Garlieston. But it’s the wildlife that really makes Wigtown Bay stand out.
The bay is the largest Local Nature Reserve in the UK, and plays host to a spectacular range of species, particularly birds. Ospreys fish on the open waters in the summer, and thousands of geese, ducks, swans and waders arrive every autumn, attracted by the promise of food.
These sorts of areas are incredibly important for wildlife, as where rivers flow out to the sea, they deposit rich nutrients and create a unique range of habitats. Birds, particularly the winter visitors, come here to feed on the millions of tiny creatures that hide away in the mud, fuelling up for long journeys ahead, or staying on to enjoy the bounty.
But saltmarsh and mudflats are an increasingly rare habitat around Scotland, as sites are developed, or altered by sea walls, and with climate change, they’re likely to become even more scarce in the future. So when the opportunity came up for us to buy such an area in Wigtown Bay, we were very eager to take it on.
The Crook of Baldoon actually came on the market unexpectedly. It had previously been managed as a farm, and was nestled right on the coast of the bay just to the south of Wigtown. It was already a fantastic place for wildlife, particularly for birds like golden plovers, but with a bit of work, we hoped it could be transformed into a natural haven for wildlife and people alike.
The RSPB doesn’t buy new reserves very often, so an appeal to our members is always a serious undertaking. But fortunately, after massive support came flooding in, the appeal was successful, and by September2010, the Crook of Baldoon was officially named as the RSPB’s 209th nature reserve.
Where do we go next?
Unfortunately, creating a nature reserve isn’t as simple as buying a bit of land and sticking a welcome sign at the gate. Areas do not become wildlife havens by simply being left to go ‘wild’. In fact, the whole process can be incredibly complicated, starting off with surveys, looking at the current land use, monitoring water levels, salinity testing, considering the impacts of future climate change, and so on. And that’s before you’ve even considered access and facilities for the public.
At the Crook of Baldoon, we started slowly, putting in a few signs, taking out a few fences, changing the management of certain areas, and talking to visitors, many of whom had been coming to the site for years. We also employed a full-time warden, Paul Tarling, who’s still working at the reserve today.
One of the first things we started to change was the livestock grazing. Many of our reserves right across Scotland use livestock to keep on top of vegetation, mirroring a process that’s happened in the countryside for hundreds of years, and continuing an environment that our farmland wildlife is now adapted to. Cattle and sheep had been present at the Crook before we arrived, so all we did was bring down their numbers to reduce the pressure on the salt marsh, which had been suffering from over-grazing. It responded quickly, and the following spring, thrift, or sea pink, put on an amazing show, creating a dusky haze that could be seen right around the bay.
Saltmarsh plants, like thrift, sea aster and lax-flowered sea lavender form some of the building blocks of the food chain at the Crook of Baldoon, encouraging insects, which in turn feed many of the breeding birds on the site. Skylarks in particular were seen in increased numbers on the reserve in 2011, and their numbers have continued to increase ever since, along with other birds like lapwings.
But our biggest challenge at the Crook wasn’t on the saltmarsh, or on the mudflats, but on the fields behind where a thick crop of 27 hectares of willow was resolutely growing bigger every year. The technical name for the crop was short-rotation coppice, and the willow had been intended for biomass fuel. In some cases, bioenergy can be beneficial for wildlife, creating useful habitats whilst growing, and playing an important role in reducing fossil fuel emissions.
But in this case, the willow was simply not in the right place, and its presence over such a large area, was actually bad for the wildlife that should have been using the site. Getting rid of it, however, wasn’t going to be as easy as we first thought.
Look out for part II of our Crook of Baldoon blog - we'll post it on Scottish Nature Notes in the next couple of weeks.
Five facts you should know about goldcrests
Goldcrests are relatively common in Scotland with something like 750,000 individuals nesting here, and up to three million covering the country as far north as Shetland in winter. They’re hyperactive little birds that always seem to be on the move, flitting through woodland, feeding on small insects and seeds. You may have even seen them in your garden or local park. So it might be that you’re already familiar with this species, but we’re hoping we can still teach you a thing or two about the gorgeous goldcrest.
Goldcrests are Scotland’s smallest bird
Goldcrests are tiny. They are Scotland’s smallest bird, and are regarded as the smallest in the whole of Europe too. They only weigh, at most, about 6.5g which is the equivalent of holding a single 10 pence piece in your palm! But for such a minute species, goldcrests can be remarkably resilient and are one of the lightest birds in the world to migrate across the sea – moving from northern Europe to the UK in winter.
There’s something missing in the young’uns
The plumage of a goldcrest is a lovely grey-green colour; they have a white wing bar, big beady black eyes and a pale, round belly. Their most prominent feature though, is the thick black and yellow stripe down the centre of their heads. However, this ‘crown’ or ‘crest’ as its known is completely absent in juveniles.
Males pull out all the stops to attract the ladies...
Pairs of goldcrests tend to be monogamous, but the males do have to put in effort before a female will decide to ‘settle down’. During displays the males raise the colourful crests atop their head, shaking and jiggling it around with pride while performing excited, sort of jerky movements in an attempt to attract a mate. Once they’ve paired up, the male will also help build the nest – a pretty cup of moss and feathers suspended between branches like a little hammock.
For some, goldcrests are hard to hear
When in a group, goldcrests will call to one another to help keep all of the members together. Their call is very high-pitched, so high-pitched in fact that some people may not even be able to hear it. Your senses will have to be up to scratch to home in on these little beauties in the wild!
And they might be sneakier than they seem...
During migration these birds will move to the east coast of Scotland during autumn, which happens to be at a similar time to woodcocks. Years ago, this coincidence in timing gave rise to the nickname ‘woodcock pilot’ for the goldcrest. And, as the story goes, goldcrests would simply hitch a ride across the sea sneakily snuggled in the woodcock’s plumage. In the past, some people had even claimed to have seen goldcrests emerging from the feathers of woodcocks once they’d safely arrived in the UK! But we’ll leave that one up to you to judge...