RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Seeing sparrows brings memories of childhood

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Every year we have a cream tea in Devon, just one.

It seems to last for the whole year. This year we spoilt ourselves once again. And once again we shared it with a gang of house sparrows. They always fly in from the tables nearby and chirrup to us in the hope of a crumb.

We were sitting in warm afternoon sunshine, with Lundy Island gliding like the Titanic into the abyss of the Atlantic twenty miles away.

Far below on the sands, surfers were sporting like whirligig beetles in the waves of Croyde bay. A couple of kestrels were likewise playing with a conspiracy of ravens over the gorse and heather of Baggy Point, tumbling and out-winging one another like stunt pilots. Cormorants and oystercatchers shared the ragged rocks below, while the ocean seethed silver to Tintagel and King Arthur’s lost world.

Lovely beyond compare, but the sparrows focussed our attention, because they have now become as rare a sight as our annual scald cream and scones. House sparrows shared the contentment of our lives when we were children in the villages of long ago.

I remember a Heinkel 111 strafing the houses of Stiffkey where I lived in North Norfolk, but the fear of this shark in the skies with its exploding cannons, subsided the sooner as sparrows gathered together again and began chirruping for reassurance. They soon got over the attack, and so could we.

Then, down here in Sussex, we used to see house sparrows fifty years ago around many of the flint cottages in the valley, sometimes swarming into the stubble fields after harvest, to glean spilt grain.

They sat in the morning sun outside the bedroom window with puffed feathers and bright eyes and tinkers’ talk and waited for us to wake up and throw out the crumbs of toast.

They scolded the cats, which gave up and pretended they weren’t there. They gathered feathers from pigeons and pheasants and wound these together with streamers of dead grass dragged out of the lane, and laid their grey spotted eggs inside these cosy nurseries for the next band of troubadours to chirrup in the gutters of our cottage.

There are still some around farm grain silos, while the UK distribution still stretches from Land’s End to the Orkneys, with only the Scottish Mountains having no breeding sparrows.

The problem is that numbers have dropped 69% in all of these places. The BTO says this is due to agricultural intensification leaving little wild winter seed for the sparrows to exist on.

Both house sparrow and tree sparrow are now red-listed species, of high conservation concern.

But, there is good news, they say. Your garden bird feeders are halting the decline throughout suburbia, giving an increase of tree sparrows in suburban areas which could halt their extinction, and increasing house sparrow numbers by 10 per cent.

This information comes from your observations on the nation-wide BTO Garden Birdwatch.

Even we did our bit with the cream tea in Devon it seems.