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from The Telegraph
Why have sparrows left our gardens?
By Linus Gregoriadis August 2, 2002
Ten million house sparrows have disappeared from Britain in the past 30 years, according to a Government report published yesterday.
Research by the British Trust for Ornithology has found that the breeding population has plunged from 24 million to fewer than 14 million.
The study, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, also found that the number of starlings had fallen in the past 30 years from about 20 million to 8.5 million.
Michael Meacher, the environment minister, said the cause of their disappearance needed to be understood because the birds had "struck a chord with the British public".
The research found that the decline was most rapid in urban and suburban gardens.
The report says the sparrow population has fallen most dramatically in London and the South-East while there has been an increase in breeding performance in many western, northern and eastern areas.
Although a single reason for the decline has not been identified, cats, additives to unleaded petrol, a lack of nesting sites and pesticides have all been blamed.
Dr Humphrey Crick, the chief editor of the BTO report, said cats may have had a significant effect on the dwindling numbers of the birds.
"A study carried out in a village in Bedfordshire showed that over a year cats were killing between 30 and 50 per cent of the sparrow population," he said.
Dr Crick said roof and insulation schemes had reduced the number of nesting sites.
He also suggested that air pollution and the introduction of the chemical MTBE to unleaded fuel had had an impact on the birds' habitats.
Modern bird seed is another factor which has been blamed for the demise of sparrows. Experts believe that sparrows could prefer more traditional nourishment such as stale bread crusts and bacon rind.
Dr Crick said it was vital that more research was conducted to gain a better understanding of the birds' plight.
"We know that there is less food in the countryside for birds, with more efficient farming systems," he said. "But the scale of the declines of these two species in towns, which are particularly important habitats for them, is very unexpected."
The research found that while starlings have also declined rapidly, their breeding patterns have at least shown an improvement in recent months. Mr Meacher said that Defra was taking action to reverse the declines in farmland bird species, including the starling.
More than £1 billion had been made available for schemes to promote environmentally sustainable farming practices over the next five years.
Mr Meacher went on to blame the decline of the sparrow on "predatory cats and sparrow hawks" and "the loss of seeds through the loss of brownfield sites".
Dr David Gibbons, of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said his organisation was trying to promote responsible pet ownership to mitigate the threat of cats to house sparrows. It is estimated that cats are responsible for the death of 40 per cent of the sparrow population.
Dr Gibbons said cat owners should fit their pets with bells or collars with bleepers to reduce the danger to birds.
Cats should be neutered and kept indoors when birds were most at risk of being hunted down.
"Cats do take a large percentage of the [house sparrows], but there is no reason to suggest that they are causing the decline," he said.
The BTO said yesterday that it was launching a house sparrow appeal to fund a survey and research into their disappearance.
Graham Appleton, of the BTO, said: "No species lives more closely alongside man than does the house sparrow. It is not surprising that people are concerned at their disappearance from our gardens."
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2002.
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