Sitting in the Elephant and Wheelbarrow, an Olde English pub in Melbourne, on a hot summer’s afternoon I thought for a moment I had sunk too many pints of Tetley’s Yorkshire bitter.
Perched on the back of the chair alongside me was a cockney sparrow, chirping merrily before swooping to snap up a few crusts of pastry that had spilled from my steak and kidney pie.
As I have discovered at McDonald’s on Swanston St, the sparrows have learned that there are rich pickings to had in the eateries of central Melbourne and what is remarkable, they appear to be tolerated.
At McDonald’s the sparrows even wait for the automatic doors to open and shut as people enter, and in the Elephant and Wheelbarrow some patrons feel compelled toss them a crumb or two when the birds fly in through the windows.
I always look for the “cockney sparrows”, as they are known in Britain, in Australian cities because they are an essential link with my homeland – as much as the English-themed pub selling “warm” English bitter. However, looking forward to beer and sparrows on their home patch on my last trip to Europe I soon discovered a vital part of the fabric of city life missing. The beer was there but the sparrows had disappeared.
I’d read in recent years of the population collapse of the European sparrow (Passer domesticus) in British cities like London and Glasgow but it was in Paris that the absence of the species really struck home.
Readers might recall that the sparrow population in Hobart suffered a collapse a few years back, but this was put down to a virus and in a relatively short time numbers were back to normal.
The situation in Europe is not so readily explained, however, and there is serious concern that the sparrow could vanish completely from our cities. In London, my old newspaper, the Independent, has gone so far as to offer a reward to any researcher who can come up with an answer for sparrow decline, and a program to restore numbers. In London, the sparrow tribe is reported to have decreased by 90 per cent.
Although I saw reasonably good sparrow numbers in London, I was nonetheless shocked by their total absence in Paris. I can honestly say that in three days, I did not see a single member of the species.
Because of its close association with the activities of man, the sparrow is woven into the folklore of Europe’s major cities. The species is not from Europe at all – it is related to the weaver-finches of Africa – and its expanding range followed the development of agriculture in the Mediterranean region, from north Africa and into southern and northern Europe. It soon made a home in man’s world, largely feeding at first on grains stored on farms.
Possible explanations have been offered by ornithologists for the sparrow’s recent decline. Tightened building regulations, along with better maintenance, may have closed up many of the cracks in which sparrows build their nests, and an increase in the number of pet cats might be taking a toll.
Another explanation, and possibly the most plausible, is that pollution from cars is killing the insects that are fed to sparrow young for protein, although adult sparrows are mostly seed eaters.
Sparrows may have vanished from many urban areas in London but in parks they still appeared to be holding their own. Not so in Paris although my sparrow hunt there did turn up a surprise. Robins had been in short supply in London – possibly because a cold snap with sub-zero temperatures had driven them deep into bushes – but I was delighted to find a robin singing in the winter sunshine. It was perched on one of the support pillars of the EiffelTower.