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Friday, July 12, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Silent warning? Sparrows are vanishing throughout Great Britain

Los Angeles Times

LONDON — They disappeared so quietly that few noticed them go, or perceived the silence they left beneath the thrumming layers of city noise.

In their dusty gray-and-brown jackets, house sparrows were so commonplace that their decimation in major British cities went unremarked for years.

"The decline has been massive. In London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dublin, the population has fallen by 99 percent since 1980," said Dennis Summers-Smith, one of the world's leading sparrow experts. "This is almost extinction."

The house sparrow will go on Britain's endangered-species "red list" this year. Yet it is still officially a pest that can be exterminated. In fact, sparrow-proof bird feeders are still sold in London.

In the United States, the birds are often seen as a kind of feathered mice — not just drab and dull, but invaders.

But to sparrow watchers here, such as Roy Sanderson, there is a pathos about the disappearance of a bird so identified with London, so taken to heart by the East End's cockneys.

"It was a part of London folklore, the sparrow. It was the cockney 'sparrer.' The East Enders didn't see a lot of birds, but the sparrow was always around in their gardens," Sanderson said.

The fate of the sparrow has ornithologists mystified, and the Independent newspaper has offered a 5,000-pound reward to solve the puzzle.

"There are lots of theories, but no good answers yet," said Keith Noble, London Sparrows Officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Britain, citing food shortages, predators, changes to farming methods and pollution as possible causes. Summers-Smith warns that the decline of the sparrow may point to dangers for humans not just in London, but in major cities everywhere. Sparrows are declining in many big European cities as well as the big cities in Britain, he points out.

"If one bird declines dramatically, something funny is going on, and since most of us live in cities, I think we ought to know why it's happening," he said by phone from his home in northern England.

"Birds are indicators of the quality of life," he said. "Is the house sparrow the modern equivalent of the miners' canary, telling us something nasty is going on in our cities?"

The national sparrow population is reported to be 673,000, a 57 percent drop since 1979.

Squinting at the pockmarked walls of one of London's most famous tourist landmarks, the Tower of London, sparrow researcher Sandy Alcorn, 48, strained to hear the once commonplace chirrup.

Last year, she counted eight sparrow nests in and around the tower, this year only four.

"Maybe when I come back this time next year, there'll be no sparrows left here," she said. In 1925, a young ornithologist named Max Nicholson, then 21, counted 2,603 sparrows in central London's Kensington Gardens. This summer, only four male sparrows found their way into the garden, and not one found a mate.

Last year, there were hatchlings, but none survived.

Hundreds of Londoners are taking part in a survey, sponsored by the London Biodiversity Partnership, a coalition including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other wildlife and ecological groups, to count sparrows in their neighborhoods. The aim is to find pockets where the bird is more plentiful, and uncover clues as to why.

Amanda Rudd, a project manager at the London Wildlife Trust, said people were so used to thinking of the bird as common that their disappearing act took the city by surprise.

"But when you ask people, 'When was the last time you saw one?' they say, 'I don't remember,' " she said.

The house sparrow is also declining sharply in the United States, but there is no alarm among ornithologists because the bird is an imported species: 100 house sparrows were brought to Brooklyn in 1851 and 1852, while others were imported to San Francisco and Salt Lake City in 1873 and 1874.

"Folks have generally frowned upon it (the sparrow)," said Keith Pardieck, head of the North American Breeding Birds Survey at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, confirming a 2.5 percent annual decline in the house-sparrow population since 1966.

If the bird were native, people would be alarmed, he said, calling the sparrow "an invasive species."

The number of sparrows in North America is estimated at 150 million, according to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

Nicholson said the sparrow was imported to Britain too, about 400 years ago. It traveled from India and South Asia through Iran and Turkey to Vienna, Austria, and other parts of Europe.

Alcorn never took much notice of the bird until she began studying the Tower of London sparrows and two other colonies in east London for a diploma of ecology and conservation at Birkbeck College in London 18 months ago.

"You start out mildly interested and end up obsessed," she confessed. "You've heard of the cockney sparrow, small and perky but big personality. They're very entertaining to watch. They're funny little fellows. I think the city would be a very dull place without them."

Alcorn took a British television documentary crew to observe the Tower of London sparrows last year. They waited 2-1/2 hours to spot one.

But last week the sparrows were out, pecking the seed heads of summer grass, chirruping loudly, with heads cocked.

To Alcorn's chagrin, most of the 12 to 15 young sparrows that hatched this summer near the tower were either eaten, died or flew off.

She finds it alarming that such an adaptable and intelligent bird is now in such a precarious situation.

"This little fellow is tough and a survivor if ever there was one," she said.

She has seen sparrows raid insects from spiders' webs, pluck insects from car radiators, nip food from pigeons' beaks and copy other birds pecking the tops of milk bottles to drink the milk.

One theory is that their favorite nesting places, holes and cracks in roofs, have become scarce because modern roofing materials are tougher than they used to be — but Sanderson said there were plenty of nesting sites in Kensington Gardens this year, while Alcorn said the Tower of London also afforded plenty of roosting places for the birds.

Another theory is scarcity of food because farmers plow and sow crops twice a year, instead of once, meaning fields don't lie fallow providing winter food; others include predators; a mystery virus; or competition for food from other species.

Summers-Smith discounted these theories. There were not large numbers of corpses that would suggest a virus, he explained. And sparrows remain common in small towns close to farmland, predators and other species competing for food.

His theory is that toxic emissions of lead-free gasoline, introduced in London in 1989, may be killing off insects, the only food that baby sparrows can eat.

Sanderson, who bands the legs of birds to identify and trace them, followed the fortunes of the four unlucky male birds in Kensington Gardens this summer. He decided against banding them in case it disturbed them.

"The sparrow followed man around the world. It's always been at man's right arm," he said. "Now it's turning its back on us. I think it's very important to know why."

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