Second Chance Documentary: SPARROWS
Derek Mooney presents a special programme examining the inextricable link between humans and house sparrows, how the development of early agriculture led to sparrow settlements in Ireland, and why ringing sparrows can help us monitor their populations. We find out how a Dutch domino attempt proved to be fatal for one sparrow, and the reason that Mao's Great Sparrow Campaign was so catastrophic for both sparrows and the Chinese people. We learn about sparrow 'dust baths', why the "Cockney sparra" may well become a thing of the past, and we find out how ornithologists in Northern Ireland are working with farmers to help conserve house sparrows...
The house sparrow was once such a common and familiar bird to people all over Ireland that it needed no introduction. Often overlooked or considered "drab" or "boring" – the quintessential "dull little brown bird" – house sparrows are actually rather attractive birds when viewed at close quarters.
A Female House Sparrow (Photo: Michael Finn / BirdWatch Ireland)
Both sexes have chestnut-brown backs and wings, streaked with black, contrasting with light dusky grey bellies and cheeks. The female has a fairly plain head, with a brownish crown and a beige stripe curving back behind each eye.
A Male House Sparrow (Photo: John Fox / BirdWatch Ireland)
The male is altogether more showy. The chestnut of his back extends up his neck on each side of the head in a broad curl to meet the eye, bordering a contrasting patch of grey on the very top of his head. The eye itself is surrounded by a thin black "mask" that runs forward to meet the short, stubby, conical bill: the distinctive bill of a seed-eater, that has evolved to crush the strong husks of wheat, oats and other grain. The male's bill is yellowish-grey during most of the year, but during the height of the summer breeding season it turns jet black. Most striking of all, flaring out from the chin to the middle of the breast, the male house sparrow sports a large black "bib", more extensive in some individuals than others.
The Male House Sparrow's Black 'Bib' (Photo: Neil van Dokkum / BirdWatch Ireland)
The extent of this beard-like black patch is controlled by the amount of the hormone testosterone in the sparrow’s body: the more testosterone he has, the larger the patch and the more aggressive and dominant he is. It shows his rank in sparrow society, and also plays a large role in his attractiveness to females: the bigger, the better, as far as the ladies are concerned!
A male sparrow returns to the nest box with food for the chicks but the female blocks his entry (Photo: Tony Margiocchi/Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
More distinctive than the house sparrow’s appearance, however, is its behaviour. Most of our songbirds are highly territorial, at least during the breeding season, with males singing aggressively to defend the best possible nesting territory from their rivals. House sparrows are quite different. They much prefer to nest colonially, in large flocks, without any clear territorial boundaries between pairs. They have far less need than other songbirds for vocal prowess, therefore, which is why their song is so basic: just a simple "chirp . . . chirp . . . chirp".
House Sparrow (Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
There is another aspect of house sparrow behaviour that sets them apart. Of all bird species, this is the one that appears to be most dependant on human activity for its survival. Across its wide range, it is almost always found in close proximity to man, taking advantage of the food we make available and nesting in and around our dwellings: the name "House Sparrow" is a very apt one.
House Sparrow (Photo: Anuwar Hazarika / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Before Homo sapiens came on the scene, nesting sites for house sparrows, and therefore the number of sparrows themselves, were much scarcer. Today, they strongly favour building nests inside cavities in man-made structures. Gaps between bricks, holes under roof-slates, spaces formed behind gutters and drainpipes: they are not fussy. If they can find a suitable opening they will take advantage of it. We can tell quite clearly that this habit, indeed compulsion, for nesting in human buildings is one that developed quite recently in evolutionary terms.
Niall Hatch is Development Officer with BirdWatch Ireland. A keen observer of sparrows for many years, he met up with Derek on New Row Street, close to St. Patrick's Cathedral, to show him why it is one of the best places to find house sparrows in Dublin...
Dr. Ronan O'Flaherty (l) with Niall Hatch (r) at Ferns Priory in Wexford
A new type of stone-age farming society reached Ireland around 4,000 B.C., which featured long houses and a grain-based economy. Around 2,000 years later, the sparrow followed. Dr. Ronan O’Flaherty is an archaeologist and heritage expert based in Wexford, and is the lead consultant for all cultural heritage projects with Crane Bag Consulting. He met up with Niall Hatch at the monastic site of Ferns Priory, where he explained that monastic sites such as this played a pivotal role in the development of agriculture, and where the grain was, the sparrows followed...
Niall Hatch (l) with Bláthnaid ní Chofaigh (r)
Our gardens are in increasingly important haven for the species. The radio and television presenter Bláthnaid ní Chofaigh has a healthy population of sparrows in her suburban Dublin garden. She invited Niall Hatch out to her Monkstown home to ask why in the hot weather, the house sparrows who call her garden home have been taking "dust baths"...
Keen to discover more about the association between house sparrows and town gardens, and to learn about efforts to monitor the species and its fortunes in Ireland, Niall Hatch met up with bird ringer Sean Kingston, who rings sparrows in his parent's garden in Templemore, Co. Tipperary...
For further information on BirdWatch Ireland's Countryside Bird Survey, click here, and for more information on the Bird Atlas 2007-2011, click here.
Sparrows are related to an African and Asian group of birds known as the weavers and, like them, they weave domed globe-shaped nests out of dry grass, usually in trees and bushes. These roofed nests provide extra protection both against predators and the elements: they take more time and effort to construct than a regular basket-style nest, but for most sparrow species, nesting in relatively exposed conditions, that extra hassle is worth it.
For the house sparrow though, it is not worth it at all. They nest inside secure, dry cavities in brickwork and other solid structures, yet still they pointlessly build a domed roof over their nests. They do this because their genes tell them that they must: evolution appears not yet to have caught up with the species’ recently-altered nesting behaviour.
Male House Sparrow (Photo: Ronnie Martin / BirdWatch Ireland)
In London, one of the birds most closely associated with the city is the sparrow. According to the RSPB, "the cockney sparra has lived alongside us for hundreds of years and was once a regular fixture in our London gardens, parks and squares. It was so beloved by Londoners that it was incorporated into cockney rhyming slang - bow and arrow." In recent years though, the number of sparrows in the English capital has been in decline - 68% of the city's sparrows were lost between 1994 and 2000. In 2002, the RSPB and London Biodiversity Partnership launched the 'Where have all the sparrows gone' survey. The organisations asked Londoners to report any house sparrows in their gardens or local green spaces. The results painted a sad picture, with a stark absence of sparrows in the centre of London. Ten years later, the RSPB, together with London Wildlife Trust, GiGL and other members of the London Biodiversity Partnership, ran the Cockney Sparrow Count; a repeat of the original citizen science survey. According to the RSPB, 'there's been no dramatic change, in fact the 2012 results reinforce what we found in 2002. Sparrows are more scarce in central London and increase in number as you head towards the suburbs. Interestingly, there was a very slight bias towards the east. but you'd expect that for a bird dubbed the 'Cockney' sparrow'. For more information about the results, click here.
Left: Dr. John Mallord (photo: RSPB); right: Female House Sparrow (photo: Michael Finn / BirdWatch Ireland)
Dr. John Mallord is Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science, with the RSPB in Cambridge. He told Derek why attitudes towards sparrows have changed over time, and outlines some of the reasons why house sparrow populations have declined... For more information about Dr. John Mallord and to read his article Testing assumptions of a supplementary feeding experiment aimed at suburban House Sparrows Passer domesticus, as published in the journal Bird Study, click here.
In the past, sparrows were often considered a serious agricultural pest in their native European and Asian ranges, often misguidedly. The most alarming example occured in China, where in 1958, Chairman Mao launched his infamous Four Pests Campaign, one of his first actions in his Great Leap Forward. The aim was to eliminate several pest species that he believed were hindering his nation's progress - and chief amongst them was the sparrow. Both house sparrows and closely-related tree sparrows were known to be serious consumers of rice, wheat and other grains and farmfields. Birds were declared Public Animals of Capitalism, and were to be eliminated.
The Chinese government mobilised virtually the whole population of the vast country, sending them out into the fields to chase sparrow flocks, banging pots and pans and preventing them from getting any rest or respite - causing the small birds to become so exhausted that millions upon millions of them dropped dead. Sparrows became practically extinct in China and the campaign was deemed a success. But without sparrows to prey on their larvae, numbers of locusts and other insects very quickly soared. A vital biological control had been removed, and the vast clouds of insects reeked far greater havoc on farm crops and food stocks than the sparrows ever could have done.
Left: the Domino Sparrow; right: Richard Collins (l) with Kees Moeliker, Director of the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam (r)
Sparrows have also suffered unjust persecution for more trivial reasons. The most notorious is probably that of the so-called Domino Sparrow, which met an ignominious and highly controversial end in 2005 thanks to its disruption of a domino-toppling event in the Netherlands. Dr. Richard Collins met up with Kees Moeliker, a Dutch biologist and director of the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam, to find out how the bird ended up stuffed and mounted on a box of dominoes.
To listen back to the MGW documentary The Domino Sparrow - Revisited, click here.
Dr. Kendrew Colhoun
People often develop a real affection for house sparrows, and thankfully a sparrow recovery may be on the horizon. In Northern Ireland, things are on the up for the house sparrow, and its close relation, the tree sparrow. Derek visited Portmore Lough Nature Reserve in Co. Antrim to meet up with Dr. Kendrew Colhoun, Senior Conservation Scientist, Reserves Team with RSPB NI. Kendrew is a firm believer in agri-environment schemes, where farmers are rewarded financially for taking steps to benefit nature. He explains why tree sparrows are doing well at Portmore, and across Northern Ireland, thanks to these agri-environment schemes.
The fortunes of humans and house sparrows are inextricably linked. No bird is so strongly dependent on us for its survival and we have a duty to make sure that it remains part of our lives. To find out more about the house sparrow, Passer domesticus, visit birdwatchireland.ie
First Broadcast 27th of August 2018
Repeated RTÉ Radio 1, 21st of April 2019 & 29th June 2020
The Dawn Chorus
Back from the Brink is a one-hour programme that plans to celebrate the hard work, dedication, and commitment of conservationists who are striving to save endangered species from extinction. Here, Derek Mooney discusses this unique, pan-European natural history event.
I've been working in natural history broadcasting for over 30 years now. In that time, I’ve seen some truly wonderful sights, but I’ve also seen first-hand the problems that wildlife is facing, both in Ireland and around the globe. There has been a growing awareness amongst the general public, particularly in the last few years, of the threats to our environment and biodiversity.
In many ways, this has been long overdue, but I’m also aware that for a lot of people the current state of our planet can seem overwhelming, even depressing. We are increasingly bombarded by tales of doom and gloom. Issues like climate change and animal extinction are too often made to seem insurmountable, as though tragedy is a foregone conclusion, but that’s simply not true. It’s not too late to help nature.
We need to find a way to bring some much-needed optimism back into the conservation. That’s definitely what attracted me most to Back from the Brink. Through my work over the years on Mooney Goes Wild, in particular, I have met thousands of dedicated scientists and conservationists out there, fighting hard to save endangered species and working miracles. By telling some of their stories, I thought we could inspire people and show that there is every reason for hope.
Nature is resilient, and if given a chance it can recover from all sorts of abuse. It was once thought that the Red Kite, a stunning bird of prey, was lost forever from Irish skies, shot and poisoned to extinction. To see dozens of them now flying over the Co. Wicklow countryside again, all thanks to the dedication of people who simply weren’t prepared to give up, was a humbling and inspirational experience.
The same goes for the enormous efforts that I witnessed to safeguard the growing populations of Wolves in Italy, Brown Bears in Spain and Eurasian Beavers in The Netherlands, to give a few key examples from the programme. Perhaps the most sobering part for me personally was seeing the dramatic effects that climate change has wrought on the Swiss Alps, where glaciers are rapidly melting and high mountain habitats are disappearing, along with the unique animals that live there. Even then, against all the odds, people are fighting back.
Back from the Brink is not just a story about animals. At its core, it’s really a story about people. We, humans, have caused our planet’s problems, but people are also the key to fixing them. Literally every conservationist I interviewed for the programme spoke with such passion about their work, coupled with an unshakeable belief that what they were doing was utterly worthwhile, and I think that shines through on the screen. It must do because even the production crews, and there were many across Europe, not least our own team here in Ireland, headed by Colm Crowley from RTÉ Cork and scientific advisor Niall Hatch, were totally dedicated to this project.
We want to empower as many of those viewers as possible, and to reinforce the truth that every single one of us can play a role in saving endangered species and the wider environment. It’s not just about doing your bit – it takes much more than a bit, it takes a lot! – but about understanding that we need to accept fundamental changes to the way in which we live our lives. Having seen what can be achieved when the will is there, it will be well worth it, believe me.
Watch Back from the Brink at 6:30pm on Monday, 30th of December on RTÉ One.
Second Chance Archive
Have another chance to hear some of our Mooney Goes Wild programmes uncovered from the RTÉ Radio 1 archive. Click the links below for more information.
The Dance of the Cuckoos - Mooney Goes Wild Special
The Blue Whale - Mooney Goes Wild Special
Feathers - Mooney Goes Wild Special
Bergen Whale - Mooney Goes Wild Special
Sparrows - Mooney Goes Wild Special
Wildlife Film Makers - Mooney Goes Wild Special
The Common Swift - Mooney Goes Wild Special
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Ireland and Climate Change: Are we up for it? Professor John Sweeney - Maynooth University
When the countries of the world assembled for the now famous Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to adopt the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, they undertook to take the necessary steps to prevent ‘dangerous’ climate change. Defining what was dangerous proved a difficult task, however, and largely as a result of the European Union’s prodding, a value of 2oC warming above pre-industrial times was generally adopted as the criterion. Gradually the rest of the world fell into line with this, except the Small Island Developing States of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. For them this was something that would have condemned their island homes to submergence beneath the rising sea. So when the Paris Agreement emerged in 2015, it had a nuanced objective: "to hold increases in global temperatures to well below 2 °C and pursue efforts to limit increase to 1.5 °C." To flesh out what the 1.5oC target would actually mean, the Conference asked the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to produce a Special Report, which they did in October of last year.
The report confirmed that significantly greater climate problems would be experienced at a warming of 1.5oc compared to the present day, even though we have already warmed by 1oC over pre-industrial levels. These would include increases in extremes of heat and heavy rainfall events in several regions, accompanied by more frequent and more intense droughts. But most worrying was the realisation that the remaining carbon budget to avoid this warming would only last for a decade or two at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions. After this budget was exhausted the carbon would be in the atmosphere for a century or more. Globally, emissions needed to fall by 45% on 2010 levels by 2030. It was this realisation that galvanised many groups and energised many individuals around the world, culminating in the mass protests we see around us. This was true, even in an Ireland whose compliance with its international obligations are failing miserably and its laggard status approaching the level of a national shaming. As a developed country with historical responsibility, we should be bearing more of the burden of tackling this problem than most other countries. Instead our per capita emissions are 50% higher than the EU average and place us as the second worst contributor to climate change on a per capita basis within the EU. The recently released 2018 figures confirm we are now 5M tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over the limit we agreed solemnly with our EU partners over a decade ago.
At the same time as we declared a climate emergency in Ireland this year we also declared a biodiversity emergency. This was in recognition that Ireland was also experiencing serious threats to its species and habitats, partly due to climate and also a number of other drivers, such as agricultural intensification. Another UN report in spring 2019 confirmed that human actions are now threatening more species with global extinction than ever before. The current rate of species extinction is 10-100 times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years. Around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades.
In Ireland, our peatland, coastal marsh and mountain habitats are particularly at risk. 29 different bird species and 120 species of flowering plants are in serious decline. Some bird species such as the Corn Bunting and Corncock have become extinct. Others such as the Curlew have been decimated and many species such as the pearl mussel, bumblebee, barn owl and marsh fritillary butterfly face serious threats. At the same time invasive species are moving into newly favourable ecological niches providing additional competition and stress to native species.
Ireland has warmed by 0.5oC over the past 30 years and is likely to warm by a similar amount over the next 2-3 decades. This will have impacts on our growing season, making crops like maize much more feasible to grow. However, projected changes in rainfall are likely to be the main climate change problem Ireland will face. Already we are seeing an increase in intense rainfall events. Increased winter flood problems will result and the government will need to find €1B of taxpayers’ money to protect against future events. Winter storms are also likely to become more problematical. Winter 2013/14 was the stormiest winter in Ireland for at least 143 years. Winter 2015/16 was the wettest winter on record over half of Ireland. Former hurricanes such as Ophelia and Lorenzo pose additional late autumn threats which are likely to increase as the Atlantic warms and summer droughts will bring their own difficulties for agriculture and municipal water supplies. All in all, it is changing weather extremes which will bring the message of climate change home to Irish people and instil in them the urgency of playing a constructive role in international negotiations.
Conscious that it their legacy that is under threat, young people have been in the vanguard of protest. The ‘Fridays for Future’ schools protest has taken up the baton of Greta Thunberg who has become the icon that communicates the reality of climate change more effectively than a hundred graphs and tables. Armed with the factual knowledge of the Green Schools, it is to these inspirational leaders that the rest of society must now turn. The time for tinkering around the edges with excuses about efficiency or identifying ‘low hanging fruit’ on the basis of economic cost benefit curves is now over. The problem is now an ethical one of intergenerational equity, one where scientists can no longer be labelled ‘alarmists’ but rather ‘realists’. In an emergency the unthinkable has to be considered and Ireland is now at a crossroads where the next decade will determine what legacy we leave to the next generation. It’s an awesome responsibility. Are we up for it or not?
Professor John Sweeney is Ireland’s foremost climatologists and was a lecturer at Maynooth University’s Geography Department for 40 years until his recent retirement. Over the past 30 years he has published approximately 60 scientific papers and edited and co-authored texts on various aspects of climatology and climate change in Ireland.
Statement from BirdWatch Ireland, Thurs Feb 28th 2019:
BirdWatch Ireland wishes to remind the public, local authorities and contractors that hedge-cutting is NOT permitted between 1st March and 31st August inclusive, except in the case of any of the derogations permitted under the Wildlife Act 1976, as amended. The Heritage Act 2018 gives the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the power to make certain changes to these dates, but it is important to note that, as yet, the Minister has not done so. As a result, the usual dates when hedge-cutting is prohibited currently remain unchanged.
It is an offence to 'cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy hedgerows on uncultivated land during the nesting season from 1 March to 31 August, subject to certain exceptions'. For more information, click here. To read the Heritage Bill 2016, as passed by Dáil Éireann on July 5th 2018, click here. To read the Heritage Act 2018, click here.
To contact your local wildlife ranger, click here for contact details. To read the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000, click here.
Caring For Wild Animals
Please note that many species of mammals, birds, invertebrates etc... are protected under law and that, even with the best of intentions, only someone holding a relevant licence from the National Parks & Wildlife Service should attempt the care of these animals. For full details, please click here to read the NPWS Checklist of protected & rare species in Ireland. If you are concerned about a wild animal, please contact your local wildlife ranger - click here for details.
Please DO NOT send any live, dead or skeletal remains of any creature whatsoever to Mooney Goes Wild. If you find an injured animal or bird, please contact the National Parks & Wildlife Service on 1890 20 20 21, or BirdWatch Ireland, on 01 281-9878, or visit www.irishwildlifematters.ie