Sparrows – avian rats or gardener’s friend?

Sparrows – avian rats or gardener’s friend?

The Office for National Statistics estimates that between 1970 and 2013 the population of house sparrows in the UK declined by 72%. 

I am very lucky in having a gang of sparrows noisily chasing each other around my garden, flitting from rose to rose picking out the greenfly and anything else tasty they can find.

Gardeners have not always been so affectionate towards the sparrow. William Watson, editor of the  Gardener’s Assistant, writing in 1900 had a particular aversion to them. He wrote:

The sparrow, or ‘Avian Rat’, is the most troublesome and mischievous of all British birds, whether in the corn or seed-fields, or gardens… Incessant war should be waged against the sparrow, the worst of all feathered pests.”

19th century French roses: Mme Alfred Carriére

It’s difficult to understand this hatred for sparrows, but Watson, who was assistant curator at the Royal Gardens in Kew, was not alone.  

Sparrow clubs

From the 18th century onwards, many agricultural parishes had “sparrow clubs” whose members were rewarded for destroying the birds and went into battle with typical Victorian excess. The Bucks Herald reported in May 28th 1892 that the “Tring and District Sparrow Club made a record of destroying 5,345 sparrows in the last five months. 20,000 were destroyed over the whole area and prizes were given.”

Many Victorians understood the value of the birds in eating caterpillars and keeping down garden pests – a pamphlet from the Royal Agricultural Society of England and Wales published in 1862 makes this clear:

“Even sparrows may be included in the list of useful birds, notwithstanding the damage they cause at times to the orchard or cornfield, because they feed their young (which have very good appetites) exclusively upon larva, grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles, worms, or ants; and both old and young at the end of summer are constantly filling their crops with the seeds of weeds. A couple of sparrows will consume in food for their young about 3000 insects weekly, each parent bringing a bill-full 30 times an hour. These services are well worth a few cherries. The field-sparrow does not, moreover, eat cherries, and a small number of these birds will soon cleanse many shrubs and rose-trees from the aphis.”

 In 1865 The Gateshead Observer, responding to news that one individual at a sparrow club in southern England had killed 6,000 birds, quoted the President of the Naturalists’ Field Club, the Rev G. C Abbs, who calculated that those 6,000 sparrows would have eaten 6,307,000,000 caterpillars. And noted: “While the clodhoppers of Sussex are killing sparrows by the thousand, the Australian colonists are importing them at considerable expense from England, to act the part of protectors of the crops.”

Others pointed out that farmers had themselves to blame if there were too many sparrows – they had also killed the sparrow hawks that kept populations in control. The lesson about ecological balance was not learned. In 1958 Mao Zedong launched the “smash sparrows campaign” in China to protect crops. So many were killed it resulted in a surge in the locust and insect populations, which stripped the fields, causing famine.

Tree sparrows

My sparrows are house sparrows. Watson was writing mainly for landowners and the owners of stately homes (or their armies of gardeners). The sparrows he was contending with may have been tree sparrows (which the ONS records show have declined by 90% since 1970 in the UK).

Maybe their numbers were so great that they were a pest. But for a humble town gardener like me, these birds are a rich blessing.

Watson, for all his vitriol adopted a humane policy of ‘pest control’ – chasing off the birds.

“In the case of orchards and large quantities of valuable seed cultures, a boy may be engaged to scare away birds. Scarecrows are generally so evidently a burlesque on anything real that birds take pleasure in sitting upon them.”

Zephrine Drouhan (pink rose) is highly susceptible to greenfly. Also pictured, Mme Hardy (white rose)

In my small walled garden I have now over 60 roses. I leave fatballs and seed out for the sparrows – and occasionally treat them to some dried mealworm. In return they strip my roses of greenfly. 

Occasionally the weight of the sparrows as they perch cheekily on a rose stalk hunting their prey does cause damage, but I am happy to tolerate that for the benefits they bring.


Banner image – Prasan Shrestha, CC BY-SA 4.0

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About the Storyteller Gardener

Martin Stott is an award-winning journalist who has written for most of the UK national press and reported from 21 countries for the BBC World Service and Radio 4. The storyteller garden history blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.