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Birdspotting: The house sparrow

From the W1555 Buurtbrief November 2022

written by Pascal

While renovating our house on Wolphaertstraat, we lived in a garden shed on Grondherendijk from April to December 2021.

While there, I became wedded to a bird. An ordinary and dull-looking brown bird, or at least that's what I thought at the time. For many people, the house sparrow, for that is what I want to talk about, is one of the most insipid birds in the Netherlands, until recently I too belonged to that group.

I knew that under the roof tiles of a large building owned by the back neighbour lived a family of sparrows. Every morning, the whole clan would come down from the roof and sit busily chattering in the rose bush. The sparrow family immediately piqued my interest, I don't know if it was out of love or misplaced concern but I decided to start feeding them. One Saturday morning, I drove to the pet shop and bought two 10-kg bags of benefit scatter feed, let me do it right away I thought.

I put down a bowl of water sprinkle some food on the place by the back door and the "all you can eat" breakfast buffet was open. Every morning the whole family was feasting on the birdseed, and we watch through the window at what is going on there. The sparrows claim the entire buffet, not a great tit or dunnock venturing in.

The funny thing is that when you follow such a family for a while you start to recognise the individuals. The seemingly identical birds turn out to have slight differences in appearance and behaviour, a spot on the feathers just a little bigger or lighter, one sparrow more dominant than the other. The easiest to recognise was "pootje", which was, you guessed it, missing part of its leg. Children are very hands-on in naming animals.

House sparrows are feisty birds that can give each other a hard time but also warn each other when danger threatens. We were able to follow the family for a whole breeding season, seeing males fanatically courtship the females, mating in front of us and family feuds being fought in the rose bushes. Young were snatched by magpies and other young grew up to become adult house sparrows. The ups and downs of the family unfolded like a reality soap opera in our little backyard.

When humans made their first attempts at farming, I think this bird must have had a piece of the pie. Since then it hasn't left us, such an animal we call a culture follower. A bird that thinks in possibilities instead of problems, see I like that!

He is number one in the National Bird Count every year with over 450,000 counted, and also the most counted in our neighbourhood with 87 "finches" behind his name. Despite this high position, the house sparrow is not doing well.

Every year the numbers are decreasing, a few decades ago there were about 2 million breeding pairs in the Netherlands and the population has now more than decimated. The main causes are scale increases in agriculture, changes in housing construction, management of urban green spaces and petrification of gardens.

Meanwhile, the house sparrow has been placed on the red list of Dutch breeding birds. This list is drawn up for bird species whose habitat is threatened and requires action.

We can help the house sparrow, and the great thing is that you don't have to do anything at all to do so. Stop tidying up your garden and, if you can, leave your loose roof tile after a storm, sit on the bench and admire your boring brown but oh-so-cute garden bird. It will save you a lot of sweat and you will get a little happiness in return!

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