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Part 17 - The House Sparrow and the Short-eared Owl

House sparrow – Passer domesticus

A line drawing of the Sparrow     A male House Sparrow taken by Rhys Haden in April 2008

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

A line drawing of the Short-eared Owl

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.

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