My garden is nothing special – a patch of scrappy lawn, laid on top of builders’ rubble in this newbuild estate, surrounded by wooden fence panels, enlivened by a few plants in pots brought with us from our previous home. But this past summer, it has been a place of sanctuary for an endangered species.
It started in the spring – our first in this house – when a small flock started lining up on the fence most days, communicating in their characteristic, monosyllabic ‘CHEEP!’ and speculatively eyeing up the garden. One of the gardens on the opposite side of the road is bristling with bird feeders, so they were well provided for in terms of food. But it was shaping up to be a dry spell, and it seemed that the most helpful thing we could do was to provide water. I duly purchased a small glazed plant saucer from the garden centre, added a pebble (to prevent bees, who also frequent bird baths, from drowning), placed it on the patio far enough from the house not to spook the birds with our movements, and filled it up with water.
Within a day or two, the bathing facilities had been enthusiastically adopted. For a couple of hours in the morning, and again at midday, queues would form on the fence. I joked that they were lining up, their towels draped over their wings, waiting for their turn in the bath! At their peak, once the first broods had fledged and the fluffy youngsters joined their parents, there could be as many as twenty individuals at any one time. Down at the bath, there were rarely fights (although one particularly large male could be very aggressive), and it was not unusual to see anything up to six birds splashing around at the same time.
We learned a number of things from watching the birds over several months. When they come down to drink, they take three sips – never less, and rarely more. Bathing is a vigorous business, and can go on for several minutes, resulting in a large pool of water all around the bath. This also means that the bath needs to be topped up several times during the day, especially during a heat wave! When it is nearly empty, they will fly down, stare into the bath, attempt to bathe, and fly back up to the fence, returning several times before giving up. After a nice, long, splashy bath, the next stop is the top of the fence, and a lengthy preen (see photo), which can last several minutes and includes forceful wiping of the beak on the edge of the fence panel (the reverberations can be loud enough to be heard in the house). Occasionally, the bathing has obviously been sub-standard, and the bird will stop in mid-preen and go back for another go in the bath, before resuming preening.
Sometimes, the birds suddenly disappear. The chorus of cheeps is abruptly silent. It is worth looking around, because there will usually be an aptly-named sparrowhawk perched on a roof somewhere, surveying the options for lunch.
Why aptly-named? Because the endangered species that shares my garden is Passer domesticus, the House Sparrow, which at one point was one of the commonest bird species around human habitation in the United Kingdom. However, populations have declined by more than 50% since the 1970s, resulting in the sparrow being on the RSPB’s Red List of endangered species.
The House Sparrow is a small, sociable, finch-like bird, with brindled brown and black markings on its upper parts and greyish cream underparts. The adult males have a distinctive black bib – it has been fun watching the young males, even when still partially fluffy, starting to develop the beginnings of their black bibs. They live in groups, and it is not uncommon in suburban areas to walk past a bush which is full of loud cheeps from a group of invisible (but very audible!) sparrows. They pair for life, and normally raise two or even three broods per year – we saw the last youngsters being introduced to the garden as late as September. This year has evidently been a good breeding year here, as the group has at least tripled in size since the spring, and it’s great to think that we have been able to contribute – by providing sanctuary and water – to the conservation effort for this species. Hopefully they will escape the avian flu which is spreading so worryingly amongst wild bird populations in the UK at the moment (we have tried to do our bit by disinfecting the birdbath frequently).
The last few weeks it has gone very quiet in the garden. After raising their young, groups often move to nearby farmland to feed on the hedgerow berries and the leftovers of the harvest. The bird feeders in the garden across the way are largely deserted, too. No doubt we’ll see them again if there’s a hard winter – access to water is often more of a problem for wild creatures when there’s a freeze than finding food. Meanwhile, we have the memory of sharing our garden with this endangered species, being given a glimpse into their busy lives and social interactions (and bathing habits!), and hopefully having helped to secure the next generation of Passer domesticus.
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