Keeping sight of the ‘Cockney Sparrow’ in London

Picture: PA/Rui Vieira

Picture: PA/Rui Vieira - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Ima

Sparrows have a rich history in this city, so let’s hope they stick around, says Bob Gilbert.

As I write, a group of sparrows sit on the top of a pyracanthus bush just outside my study window, huddled together against the cold. Though unusually settled, their heads turn ceaselessly from side to side in that perky alertness that is so characteristic of the species. The colony of sparrows that daily frequents my garden not only gives me pleasure but restores an element of hope. The greenfinches have gone, the goldfinches have, for some reason, decreased in number, but my personal sparrow flock remains solidly present. Sometimes they arrive on the bird feeders en masse, some 16 or 17 flying in and struggling to fit themselves on the various hanging appliances, whilst others loaf on the surrounding shrubs, waiting for some vacancy to appear. There are, I believe, as many as 30 of them in the flock overall but it is almost impossible to be accurate; they dart about, change places or come and go so quickly.

What makes their presence particularly precious is the fact that this is a species suffering from a recent, rapid and well-publicised decline. The latest edition of my London Bird Report suggests that numbers have stabilised somewhat since 1995 but adds the worrying note that it is in London that they are still faring the worst, with breeding numbers down 69% between 1995 and 2011. This is a sad state of affairs for the bird that has been traditionally taken to represent the spirit of London, and of the Londoner.

In the story of London, and its various adversities, there are a number of species that have been taken to symbolise the cheerful resilience so characteristic of the ordinary Londoner. After the Great Fire of 1666 it was the London rocket, a plant which sprang up in such abundance from the ashes that it earned itself the city’s soubriquet and came to represent its resurrection from the flames. During the smoky years of the 19th and early 20th century it was the ‘London’ plane, continually shedding its soot-encrusted bark to reveal fresh and bright patches beneath, that came to represent renewal and recuperation in even the most adverse conditions. It was a tree that literally ‘put a brave face on it’. And then there was the little garden saxifrage that would survive in even the most polluted soils. Featuring in almost every London back yard –including my own childhood garden in Bermondsey- it became the ‘London Pride’, determined to flower in even the meanest surroundings. It was this plant that was used by Noel Coward in ‘London Pride’, his sentimental song of defiant patriotism written at the heart of the blitz:

London Pride has been handed down to us.

London Pride is a flower that’s free.

London Pride means our own dear town to us,

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And our pride it for ever will be.

Alongside this trilogy of plants must stand the ‘cockney’ sparrow, thriving, at least until recently, where little else would, in the tiny back yards and overcrowded streets of the capital. It even entered the language of the city, a ‘bow and arrow’ being a sparrow in rhyming slang and the familiar phrase ‘me old cocker’ being a derivative of cock sparrow. Here was a bird that was plainly dressed and unpretentious in its appearance but which was unrelentingly cheerful –or at least noisy- and which displayed a blend of cocky mischief and crafty mistrust. It also had a reputation, from its frequent and very public bouts of copulation, for lechery; an attribute which may or may not be fairly applied to the Londoner. But most of all, it was here among us when almost nothing else was. It was brave and persistent and nothing, it seemed, was going to displace it.

But something has and the sparrows are leaving the city. Denis Summers-Smith, the great expert on house sparrows, has suggested it may have implications for us all, asking whether the house sparrow is ‘today’s equivalent of the miner’s canary’. Their reputation, at least, has remained intact. Just this week the latest edition of Private Eye has dropped through my letter box. In one of its cartoons a ‘house sparrow’ is uttering its characteristic call of ‘chirrup, chirrup’. Next to it a ‘cockney sparrow’ is uttering its variant of ‘chirrup it may never happen’. Let’s hope that the bird is prophetic.