Country diary: it’s breeding season for this sparrow colony
With almost clockwork regularity, little heads of house sparrows pop in and out of the holes like a wind-up toy. Sometimes they turn, quizzically, to look around, then vanish again, or rest on the perch before bursting out in flight. It’s constant noise, motion and energy. And this chirruping, squeaking chatter and the purr of wings is the year-round soundtrack to my farm life.
This is the farmyard diesel store. It could be a purely functional, sterile building, but instead it is perforated with dozens of golf-ball-sized holes. Behind each is nesting space packed with hay, feathers and horsehair that is perfect for this sociable bird. Right now, the colony is bustling with the activity of breeding season; there is mating and a quarrelsome vibe. Soon there will be eggs to incubate, a task shared between male and female.
I watch a male with a particularly large black bib on his chest, which supposedly indicates high status in the colony. He does seem like the sparrow king – he’s got big bib energy. Off he whisks. It’s a short flight from the nest boxes to the muck heap, and there he fossicks in the manure for leftover horse feed or insects, then back again to drink from a gutter.
In the past, house sparrows were considered vermin. They could swarm in their thousands, like locusts, and flatten a crop. In 1807, a local church’s accounts show a drive to rid the church of “these pests”, with the baiting of large wire traps and payments to boys of threepence for each dozen birds.
In the 1960s, my dad, as a child of 10 or 11, was encouraged to shoot them with special sparrow cartridges, used in a double-barreled shotgun. The shot, fine as dust, would bring down a rain of tiny bodies from the cloud of birds. Then came the shift towards tidy, industrialised farming and sparrow numbers declined. It is less understood what has caused a reduction in towns and cities. Now they are red-listed as being of conservation concern.
Here, at least, they are thriving. Maybe this sparrow terrace is an atonement of sorts.