The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority was awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund grant in 2016 with the aim of strengthening existing tree sparrow populations and establishing new breeding colonies and in the process raising the profile and plight of the tree sparrow. Although the HLF funded project has now ended tree sparrow are still a Priority Species for the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
Tree sparrow – species status
In the UK the tree sparrow is on the red list of birds of conservation concern and whilst there are positive indications of a rise in numbers including at bird feeders in both rural and suburban areas there is much work still needed to firmly establish this species in a number of areas where it either only occurs occasionally or has been lost from altogether.
The UK tree sparrow population suffered a severe decline, estimated at 93 per cent between 1970 and 2008. However, recent Breeding Bird Survey data is encouraging, suggesting that numbers may have started to increase, albeit from a very low point (RSPB website accessed 28/10/15).
BBS (Breeding Bird Survey) data indicate a significant increase since 1994, but it should be remembered that, for every tree sparrow today there were perhaps around 20 in the 1970s, and any recovery therefore has a very long way to go (BTO website accessed 28/10/15).
For further information on population sizes, trends and distribution visit the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) website page on tree sparrows by following this link.
In the context of the Yorkshire Dales National Park we obviously sit within the Pennine uplands and along with other upland areas such as the North York Moors and the Lake District the occurrence of tree sparrows are low and patchy mainly due to the nature of the habitats and landscapes.
Despite these restrictions to the distribution of tree sparrows all of these upland areas have a range of landscape features in the form of valleys and dales which link lowland areas in to the upland landscape. Data and our own experience and observations show that tree sparrows will spread in to the valleys and dales where suitable conditions exist.
Tree sparrows are associated with a range of habitats which include farmland (both arable and pasture), open woodlands/wood edge, and hedgerows with mature hedgerow trees, parkland, villages and areas with wetland features.
Tree sparrows are ground feeding, seed eating birds though importantly they also require insects during the breeding season for chick rearing.
Nesting takes place in holes such as cavities in trees and the birds nest in loose colonies with up to 3 broods a year from March through to August.
Tree sparrows in the Yorkshire Dales – Tree sparrows are not really associated with the uplands as can be seen from the habitat preferences but the dales in the national park do however contain a number of the preferred habitats and therefore it should be possible for tree sparrows to inhabit these areas.
Feeding and feeders
Whether you feed the birds all year round or only in the winter the important thing is to remain consistent so don’t start and stop as birds will become reliant on food sources and, especially in the winter, they can use valuable energy trying to find other sources of food if a regular site remains empty for any length of time.
Tree sparrows will use a range of feeders and foods (see the gallery pictures) from seed feeders to fat balls and large seed hoppers. Oil rich seeds are the best so things like millets, linseed and rape seed but they will take all kinds of seed and often a ‘finch mix’ is a good seed type to use. If you are lucky enough to have tree sparrows using your feeders you may want to experiment a little by offering ‘straight’ foods i.e. just white millet or rape seed etc. to see if they prefer one food over another. Don’t forget that providing water is just as vital as providing food for the birds.
It seems that some tree sparrow populations move away from their breeding areas to winter elsewhere, probably where the winter food supply is more reliable. Often relatively large flocks can be seen at coastal reserves and in lowland areas taking advantage of both the reliable food supply and probably the more favourable weather conditions. Having said this tree sparrows have been seen feeding on feeders in gardens in the dales for a number of winters now and this gives us hope that we may be able to ‘hold’ birds in the area if we provide more feeding sites that are reliably stocked with a range of suitable seed types.
Remember that tree sparrows are only one of the species of finch and seed eating bird that we have in the Yorkshire Dales and so providing the right feeding opportunities will benefit a range of species.
Sightings can be recorded on ‘Birdtrack’.
The house sparrow is another Priority Species for the National Park and a bird of conservation concern nationally, though may seem less so in the north of England where its population has not declined as significantly as other parts of the UK.
The house sparrow is a gregarious bird that is often seen in small flocks. They nest in loose colonies and are more closely associated with buildings than the tree sparrow. Up to 3 broods per year are reared the adults feeding mainly on seeds and the chicks mainly on insects.
The male and female house sparrow can be told apart by their plumage.
Males have a grey cap, chestnut brown neck (nape), plain grey/white cheeks and a pronounced black throat (bib) which runs on to its chest.
Females are a warm brown/buff with a pale eye stripe extending towards the back of the head.
You can help house sparrows by putting up nest boxes for them, more information is available here.