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London House Sparrow Parks Project

Male house sparrow in grass

Image: Andy Hay

House sparrow numbers have dropped nationally over the last 25 years (BTO various data). In Greater London they declined by 68 % between 1994 and 2009 (BTO Breeding Bird Survey data) - and sparrows are now absent from many areas of central London where they were once common.

Recent research has shown house sparrows in urban areas suffer from a lack of invertebrates (insects) to feed their young. This was shown by a study in Leicester, where poor condition and death of young chicks was linked to low numbers of invertebrates in their diet (RSPB and De Montfort University study). A large-scale feeding experiment in London (RSPB study) has demonstrated the importance of invertebrates for the survival of young chicks. Through this project, we tested more natural ways to increase the numbers of invertebrates available to sparrows and other birds in our urban green spaces.

The London House Sparrow Parks Project tested different habitat management types in London parks with the aim of boosting invertebrate numbers and also seeds during the winter. This could benefit a host of urban birds, insects and other wildlife.

Project objectives

  • To test which of the following habitat management types benefit house sparrows and other species the most: (1) long grass (left to set seed over winter); (2) native wildflower meadows (with traditional haymeadow management); (3) 'Wildlife seed plots' (based on wild bird cover options of the Environmental Stewardship Scheme for farmland).
  • To provide advice to parks across London and the UK, based on the results
  • To raise awareness of the problems facing urban wildlife and encourage people to consider wildlife in local parks and their own gardens

Key dates so far

  • 25 trial plots (and corresponding 'control' plots of normal park management) were set up in 20 parks across London
  • Three years of monitoring have been completed (bird, insect and seed numbers)
  • A team of forty dedicated volunteers helped to monitor bird use of the plots during the project
  • Public engagement and educational activities were carried out at and near some of the parks
  • Results have been analysed and papers will be written up to make the results widely available

Work planned or underway

Reports have been submitted to the main project funders, and a PhD thesis has been submitted to Imperial College London, based on the results. Advisory sheets have been produced by RSPB on how to establish and maintain the tested habitat types. It is hoped that peer reviewed papers on the results of the project will be produced in due course. Most of the trial plots set up during the project are still being maintained by the project partners.

Results

All three of the test habitat types increased numbers of invertebrates compared with the usual short grass found in parks. Invertebrate numbers were highest in the native wildflower meadows, although more pollinators (butterflies and bees) were attracted to the ‘wildlife seed’ plots. House sparrows however did not use the wildflower meadows - they preferred the wildlife seed plots. This is probably because the more open structure of the vegetation meant they could access the invertebrates in wildlife seed plots more easily.  They used these plots almost entirely during the breeding season, and not for seed in winter.

Video

Who to contact

Jacqueline Weir
Woodland Biodiversity Advisor
E-mail: jacqueline.weir@rspb.org.uk

Partners

The following partner organisations worked with us to set up and manage the trial habitat plots: 

The Royal Parks

Lee Valley Regional Park Authority

City of London

Wandsworth Borough Council

Islington Council

Southwark Council

Camden Council

Sutton Council

Funding

The project gratefully received funding from SITA Trust through the Landfill Communities Fund. Additional funding was supplied by Northern Trust, ICB-Diadem, The London Natural History Society, Edward Harvist Trust, and individual donors - especially John Vail.