Science - November 18, 2004

Is the sparrow disappearing?

The Dutch partner of Birdlife International (Vogelbescherming Nederland) sounded the alarm recently: the number of sparrows has declined over the last few decades from one million to just half a million. The bird conservation organisation wants to work together with its Belgian counterpart and track the sparrow population. It has published all kinds of tips on its website about how to attract sparrows, such as shaking out the crumbs from the tablecloth at regular times in the garden. Is the sparrow endangered or is there really no cause for alarm?

Henk Meeuwsen, a bird watcher who has recorded bird sounds and song on CDs and researcher at Alterra:
‘I should first of all say that I am not a real expert; I do not keep abreast of the literature. Nevertheless it all seems a bit exaggerated to me, perhaps because it’s such a lovely little bird that we are used to seeing out of our window in the garden.

Sparrows are not going to become extinct in the Netherlands. At present the most common resident bird in this country is the blackbird, of which there are a million. Twenty years ago the sparrow was the most common, and there were a million of them. This number has now halved, but I don’t think we really need to worry. There is enough rubbish lying around that the sparrows can live off, and there is enough room for them as well. If you compare this with birds that are on the danger list, such as the bunting and the greyhen, then the sparrow is not doing badly. If species that are threatened start to decline further, and their biotope also disappears then you need to start worrying. What is interesting to examine, however, is why a species starts to decline. Is there something happening in our environment? Are there perhaps poisonous substances accumulating in sparrows that live from whatever they find on the streets?

That the Vogelbescherming is carrying out a campaign is legitimate. It’s a good way of increasing people’s interest in the birds. You build up a relationship with birds if you do things like shaking out the crumbs from the tablecloth. The same can be said of putting out food in the winter: it’s not really necessary, but people enjoy seeing lots of birds like finches, starlings and sparrows out of their window.

The discussion returns every so often, and there are two sides. On the one hand there are the people who focus on individual birds, and find nature something to be pitied. These are people who dislike magpies and crows because they rob eggs from the nests of other birds, such as song thrushes and lapwings, which they regard as cuddlier types of bird. This is the target group of the Vogelbescherming campaign.

On the other side are the people who consider birds in terms of populations. They cannot identify with the position of the other camp and do not believe that the sparrow is endangered. But I think it is good to use the birds like this to increase people’s awareness of birds in general in Holland.’

Martin Woestenburg

Re:act