House sparrow – Passer domesticus
Cities positively teemed with house sparrows in the days of horse-drawn traffic. The vast amounts of dung must have attracted
countless insects, while spilled grain provided further food and straw plentiful nesting material. They were abundant still
in central London when I worked there in the 1970s and 80s. Now, notoriously and mysteriously, they have almost gone and you
can walk through the Royal parks from Kensington Gardens to St James and not see a single sparrow. A 1925 survey in the
grounds of Kensington Palace found 2,603 birds. When this was repeated in 1948, there were 885. In 2000, there were just eight.
This would be worrying enough had it coincided with some obvious deterioration in environmental conditions. In fact, though,
air quality has been steadily improving – at least in obvious respects, with less smoke following the Clean Air Act and fewer
vehicle emissions thanks to the rise of catalytic converters and the introduction of lead-free petrol. In turn, this might have
been expected to lead to an increase in the supply of the invertebrate food on which young sparrows depend.
Nevertheless, the 'cockney' sparrow, it seems, may soon be no more and no-one knows why. Given the house sparrow’s close
association with humanity – sparrows live with us and more or less only with us and eat much of what we eat ourselves –
should we not be more worried? Canaries in coal mines come to mind.
However, although sparrows have declined too, in Lewes, there are still lots around elsewhere - perhaps ten million pairs
in England – and in Kingston, happily, they are still very much part of the scene. For my part, I am delighted that my
pseudo-ancient hedge (only dating from 1995 but containing as many species of native tree, shrub and climber as it would
had it been 500 years old!) supports a noisy squabbling roost throughout in the winter.
Short-eared owl – Asio flammeus
I’ve only found this species once in Kingston but this series has the ambition of covering every bird ever to make an
appearance in the parish. If further justification for their inclusion were needed, for much of last winter up to eight
of these owls were present on the Brooks below Iford and some of these individuals almost certainly strayed into our area
from time to time.
Short-eared owls hunt during the day, flying low, slowly and systematically in search of prey, which is mainly the short-tailed
vole. Although a few pairs breed in the south, breeding in Sussex has only been recorded in the 1920s, at Pevensey Levels. One
pair spent the summer of 1979 at Piddinghoe but may not have bred. Most of the population is based much further north, mostly
on upland moors but sometimes on heaths, sand dunes and elsewhere, their breeding success being tied closely to that of the
voles. At the end of the summer they disperse, with many moving south to coastal areas and grazing marshes where they will
take a wide variety of prey including birds like dunlin and ringed plovers.
Once in a while, one will turn up on the Downs, perhaps looking for unwary skylarks or pipits. The owl I saw was in 1999 on
Kingston Hill and must have stayed for 20 minutes or more, quartering the rough grassy slopes.
This is quite a large owl – a little bigger than its tawny cousin. It has prominent black-barred wingtips and black marks
too at the “elbow” of the wing. If you’re lucky enough to get close to one perching, its yellow eyes can be very striking.
But field marks aside, if you see a large brownish owl in the open around here in the daytime, the chances are 50 to 1
that it’s a short-eared.