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Halting the decline of the cockney sparrow

March 6, 2012

This article was originally published in the Winter 2010 issue of Natural World, the national magazine of The Wildlife Trusts.

House Sparrows are one of our most iconic and familiar birds, living alongside us for many hundreds of years; as neighbours, they could hardly be better – sociable, vociferous, full of character and seemingly perpetually cheerful. Once upon a time their early morning chorus of jovial chirruping was the standard wake-up call across the capital – and yet for many Londoners, it’s rapidly becoming a distant memory.

As quintessentially London as pearly kings and queens or the rattle of a milk float, ‘Cockney Sparrows’ are becoming similarly hard to find in the city. Research continues into the sparrow’s demise across swathes of inner city boroughs, and while there is no single, straightforward answer, there are a range of contributory factors which, when taken together, go a long way to explaining why our neighbours have fallen on such hard times – and point to the simple methods we can use to help them.

Amongst the most obvious reasons are: loss of nest sites in existing buildings, and lack of nest sites in new build; loss of so-called wasteland and brownfield sites, so valuable for sparrows as a year-round food source; loss of ‘semi-wild’ areas in gardens and communal areas, often sacrificed for decking, driveways or lawns; and loss of thick shrubs and creepers for security, roosting, feeding and breeding.

But it’s not all about the sparrows – some or all of the same factors apply to the urban decline of several other iconic species, including, for example, Swifts, Song Thrushes, Dunnocks and Starlings. The methods used to help reverse their declines (and benefit a whole range of other species in the process) remain broadly the same for all of them – but they will stay just methods as long as communities remain disconnected from the birds and wildlife around them.

Through our Cockney Sparrow project we’ve partnered with Peabody, a social landlord whose forward-thinking and pro-active approach has helped us to forge positive relationships with a whole range of stakeholders on and around Peabody housing estates across London. From the tenants and residents themselves, to on-site Peabody staff, local schools, community groups, nurseries, older people’s groups, youth clubs and faith groups, we’re successfully preaching the gospel of urban bird conservation, with immensely satisfying results for both people and wildlife.

By directly involving local communities in hands-on conservation, we’re creating and enhancing habitats within urban areas (not just on the estates themselves, but within school grounds, in local green spaces etc) that also inspires a sense of ownership and connection between local people and the environment around them – thus, everyone’s a winner, and with knowledge comes a sense of responsibility.

From the initial launch events on each estate (imagine a wildlife fair on the village green, and transplant it into the heart of an urban housing estate), we deliver a range of free events and activities – from indoor presentations and ID crash-courses to trips to urban nature reserves, on-estate bird-watching and surveying, practical workshops (making nest boxes, bat boxes, bird feeders and more), and outdoor conservation days (planting shrubs, putting up nest boxes, sowing wildflower meadows) on participant’s doorsteps.


As someone with a lifelong obsession with birds and a great believer in the power of engagement, taking on the role of Cockney Sparrow Project Officer was always going to be a challenge to relish. The reaction of residents, and of many other people on and around our estates, has been overwhelmingly positive. One of countless examples is Nasser, a nine-year old from the Whitechapel estate in the heart of the East End. Nasser’s home, and primary school, are in an area of considerable poverty and deprivation, literally overshadowed by the skyscrapers of the city’s financial district.

Nasser first appeared on the fringes at our Whitechapel launch event, and wasn’t easy to engage – he told me how he ‘hated birds’ and didn’t ‘see the point in helping them’. However, after showing a guarded interest in further events and activities on the estate and at his school, he came on a trip to a local nature reserve, proclaiming “I wanna see a hawk”. Sometimes the gods are with you, and a female Sparrowhawk decided to fly straight towards us at head-height, veering away at the last second.

A corner was evidently turned, and to cut an inspiring story short, Nasser now spends all his breaks watching birds in the school grounds, helps run the school’s wildlife club, keeps an illustrated notebook of everything he sees, and has persuaded all his mates to get involved – as well as keeping the feeders topped up and the nest boxes in perfect shape.

The Cockney Sparrow project is into its second year, and success can be measured in a number of ways – from physical habitat improvements to wildlife-friendly management changes – and House Sparrows are already directly benefiting from the improvements made by a wide variety of local residents. Harder to quantify – but just as important – is how much local people have benefited from becoming engaged in directly helping and enjoying urban birdlife in London.

Mark James Pearson

All words and pictures – copyright Mark James Pearson 2012



























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