Sunday, 23 August 2015

The sparrows in August rain

I'm fortunate in having a garden which is frequented by many house sparrows. In the roof I have a number of them nesting and a few neighbours also tolerate their constant activity in the breeding chamber. As a result some mornings recently I have viewed around 50 or so house sparrows coming to the feeder, a true wildlife spectacle to compete with any programme.

At the time of writing in mid August the sexes of the birds are made up of around 15 per cent males and the remainder females and recent fledglings.  The latter are easy to spot as they gather on the wall at the back of the garden and maniacally wing flap to attract a morsel of food from the accompanying adult. 

Today is a very wet Sunday and as my garden plans are on hold I have been entertaining myself by watching their antics from the conservatory. I move the feeders around on a weekly basis as part of a biosecurity measure, helping to prevent disease build up below the feeders. But also it allows me to train, if train is the right term, the sparrows to move about the garden to reach the feeders including being close to the windows in the winter. Which I love.

Yesterday I moved the feeders to near the conifer which grows on the other side of the wall. The sparrows love this conifer anyway for the protection it offers them to the resident female sparrowhawk, but today it is their natural umbrella. It's not just raining today but one of those summer days when the rain is heavy while the air temperature remains in the mid 20's. I lay in bed this morning listening to the rain, a soothing sound to awaken to. Intermingled with the cheerful chirrups of the sparrows.

I looked out. Lined up on the wall were about 20 miniature sentries all jostling for pole position, like attendees at a bingo night, sheltering under the branches patiently waiting their turn on the food pole. The feeders can take 8 birds at a time, which today was exceeded by another two or 3, low level buzzing those on the perches as if to say come on its my turn now. Then as one left its perch and flew the 4 feet back to the wall, another would head out from the wall to take it's place (if not beaten to it by the low level Johnny passing by).

I must have watched this for around half an hour until the numbers began to dwindle around mid morning. It looked chaotic but in fact it wasn't. The males took the lead and if they approached a feeder a female normally would relinquish the space. But not always and a short lived squabble would ensue. Both sexes were feeding the fledglings back on the wall, but from my unscientific observation more males fed the young than females. Those adult birds on the wall all had, it seemed, equal time on the feeder. I observed a regular one-on-one-off routine time and time again. Only a couple of females stayed on there longer than normal, one can only guess to replenish reserves from nesting duties. Once back on the wall under the shelter of the tree, they preened, shook themselves and then poised like a raptor, awaited their next foray.

So many sparrows come to the garden I do not mind the 15kg of seed we get through in a fortnight, more in the winter. Moreover they provide a pest control service to me. All summer I've watched particularly the females foraging for insects, spiders and mites in the garden to take back to the nest. A blackfly infestation in July was quickly removed as these dextrous little predators clung under cardoon plants to systematically pick off this avian feast. They particularly like a climbing rose which is presumably full of spiders and the like. The sparrows glean this plant on a daily basis, leaving no leaf unturned.

Having suffered a 70% decline in numbers since the 1970's I can travel a mile away and not see a single sparrow. As a result of this decline their distribution is still widespread across the country but often very localised. The renowned naturalist Chris Sperring lives 10 miles from me and only this year commented on the sparrows return after more than a decade. Why this should be is not known but he is delighted.

As am I in having this small population of sparrows use the garden as a feeding base.  So used are they to me moving the feeders about that recently I tried an experiment. Moving the feeders to where I have a seat I sat down and waited. At first nothing, but after 5 minutes a female flew by, then again before alighting on the pole looked at me. She then flew off and then returned to look at me again, before deciding I wasn't a threat she dropped onto one of the perches and began to feed. One seed for her, one seed falling on the ground. I sat rigid in my seat, not 3 feet away, as a second and then a third arrived to feed. That female pioneer had opened the floodgates and soon the constant activity could be observed by me at close quarters. Which was as great a wildlife encounter as ever could be witnessed. Just me, my sparrows and no other care in the world.

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