Monday, January 24, 2011

The Enigma of Britain’s House Sparrows

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The ubiquitous house sparrow, with its familiar chirpings and twitterings, has long been part of the British scene. But it is now disappearing—often suddenly—from urban areas, and nobody knows why. The Independent newspaper of London has offered a £5,000 ($7,200) prize for the first scientific paper from anyone who can solve the mystery. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the British Trust for Ornithology will act as judges. The project is expected to take at least two years to complete.

Surveys reveal that towns and cities across the country have suffered a catastrophic fall in the number of house sparrows. In some areas they have disappeared completely. Yet, sparrows are still plentiful in other European cities, such as Paris and Madrid. Dr. Denis Summers-Smith, world expert on the house sparrow, says: ‘It’s one of the most remarkable wildlife mysteries of the last 50 years.’

The 65-percent drop in sparrow populations in rural areas is understood to be largely on account of intensive farming. Other bird species have suffered similar serious declines in the rurals. But this does not explain the 92-percent loss of the sparrow in urban areas. Environmentalist Michael McCarthy concludes that the house sparrow’s dramatic disappearance “is a sure indication that something has gone seriously wrong in the sparrow’s ecosystem—and maybe in ours too.” It remains to be seen just what has gone wrong and how serious it is.


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