TN24: Dr Chris Bell – the role of Sparrowhawks in the decline of the House Sparrow (Part One)

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In 2008 Dr Chris Bell published a co-authored report which claims to have found unequivocal proof that the decline of the House Sparrow (UK populations have fallen more than 60% since the 1970s) is directly linked to a steep rise in the number of Sparrowhawks – going against the general wisdom that claims the decline is instead linked to eg agricultural intensification, the ‘tidying up’ of gardens, and a decline in insects.

To many birders his analysis will seem counter-intuitive (we’ve all seen the countryside change and we’re all aware of trends in garden design that have been utterly unfriendly to wildlife in general), and the temptation might have been for me to argue passionately that the report has to be wrong – however I chose very deliberately not to go down that route: I’m not a scientist, I’ve not performed controlled surveys on sparrow populations, and I don’t have the data to conclusively prove Dr Bell wrong or demonstrate that he is correct. My own feeling is that the approach I took has allowed for a more open and interesting (and no doubt controversial) conversation…

Dr Bell has also raised eyebrows with some pointed criticism of both the RSPB and the BTO, has been scathing about scientists (eg Birdforum, 26/02/2011: “Scientists in particular have been supremely successful in promoting themselves as noble seekers after truth, but what they really do is push their own interest and point of view by any underhand means necessary. Slander and vilification of rivals is a stock in trade, and those that have the power to obstruct potential competitors miss no opportunity to do so. As the saying goes, ‘academic disputes are vicious because the stakes are so low’.” ), and I really wanted to hear what he had to say.

We spoke for nearly two hours and I’ve edited down the recording into two 30 minute podcasts. ‘The role of Sparrowhawks in the decline of the House Sparrow (Part One)‘ allows Dr Bell to explain the rationale behind the report, why the work was done, and what he thinks the results obtained demonstrate; ‘Part Two’ (which is HERE) is a more personal conversation where I ask him whether he’s been surprised just how intense the debate he started has become, what he thinks should be done with his results in terms of sparrow conservation, why he thinks that the ‘RSPB can be bad for debate’, and whether or not he is starting to enjoy his ‘notoriety’ (my words, not his).

Comments will be very welcome!

 

Show Notes

 

 

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About the author

Passionate about animal welfare and conservation, veggie and dairy-free, I live in the Wiltshire (UK) countryside. I birded the world for twenty years before quitting my airline job and am now freelance. I co-founded Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Birds Korea. Trustee of the League against Cruel Sports On Twitter @charliemoores

2 Comments

  1. Neville Dalton says:

    I am interested to know why the sparrowhawk is seen to be responsible for the decline of the house sparrow specifically since, from my own observations, they do not appear to be at all selective about which small birds they take. In our rural area in West Berkshire it is clear that sparrowhawks, despite their name, actually prefer to take pigeons or collared doves – probably easier to spot and catch and certainly ‘meatier’. We have taken a couple of videos of sparrowhawks eating pigeons they have taken from around our property and have seen the hawks eating other small birds but never, in my recollection, either house or tree sparrow or, for that matter, starlings, which have also declined dramatically. When we moved here 20 years ago our front hedge positively vibrated with sparrows but numbers have steadily reduced and we now have few house sparrows but rather more tree sparrows. On the other hand hedgerows (those remaining) have changed under machine management, fields are routinely sprayed and stubble is now ploughed in immediately after harvest. Despite having very popular feeding stations in front and back gardens visits from sparrowhawks remain rare events.

  2. Charlie Moores says:

    Hi Neville – thanks for the interesting comment. As I say in the text above I have deliberately tried to keep an open mind about the issues surrounding House Sparrows and Sparrowhawks, and Chris Bell is definitely in a better position to answer your specific queries than I am. I will try to get hold of him and ask if he might add his thoughts here. Thanks again

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