Ain't It A Shame Sparrers Can't Sing, the words of the title song from a Barbara Windsor film from 1963.
Isn't it amazing how the mind works? I was watching a flock of sparrows on my bird feeders the other afternoon and the words of that song just came floating into my mind. I didn't see the film but the title song was very popular at the time and obviously stuck. And, of course, sparrows don't actually sing they chirp and babble on in all sorts of ways but none of their utterings could remotely be described as song. Not withstanding all of this, sparrows are quite entertaining to watch. They are nothing, if not, quarrelsome. I have a large colony of them, apart from the fact that I feed the birds I also have a very large clump of thick trees and plants. A couple of apple trees have been taken over by a Clematis Montana and a Russian Creeper, together, these two climbers have entangled themselves in and around the trees to form an, almost, impenetrable mass which is huge. This mass of vegetation serves to provide a roosting place for the sparrows, they also build nests within it. I suppose it pretty much provides everything they could hope for in a roosting site. Being so dense, even when the leaves have dropped, the vines ensure a wind free location and the centre of the tangle is so dense that, save for the very hardest downpours, it remains dry, the rain running off in a way similar to a thatch. This mass also attracts a number of wrens which spend hours creeping around within it like little mice.In fact when I first saw one I actually thought it was a mouse.
The number of sparrows, I suppose like many other species of birds, have declined significantly in recent years.Once again we have the dramatic changes in agricultural practices to thank for many of these declines and, not least the widespread and, I am afraid, indiscriminate use of chemicals upon the land. But in the case of the sparrow, I suspect, the improved machinery of today has also had an impact. The modern combine harvesters do not drop or fail to collect anything like the amount of grain which the old techniques and machinery did. In the old days, threshing, bagging up grain into sacks, and winnowing, (which was the process of sorting grain from the weed seed mixed with it ), all served to provide lots of grain being spilled onto the ground in and around the farmyard. This, in turn, provided lots of food for seed eating birds like the sparrow. I well remember the huge flocks of sparrows which, for example, could be seen on Dean Farm especially during the harvesting period. It should also be remembered that the grain harvest in those days was not completed in a few short days as it is now. The harvest, depending upon acreage, could then have taken two or three weeks to complete.
The sparrow and rat populations were then such that sparrow and ratting clubs were a common rural pastime. Men and boys would devote lots of spare time in the pursuit of both these species.These clubs were generally supported by the farmers and I suppose helped to keep losses down and damage to grain down a bit. Ratting was pursued with packs of terriers in the fields and hedgerows and in barns and shed etc. They were also shot at day and at night, I have spent many hours at Dean Farm, as a boy, rat shooting. Lights would be rigged up and when the rats came out to feed we would shoot them with air rifles. A very popular past time it was too.Rats quickly become used to lights and, of course are eager feeders. Together this meant we always had lots of targets to shoot at. Sparrows were also shot and caught in bigger numbers by a variety of home -made traps. These were usually wire netting structures with trap doors. They were bated with grain which enticed the birds to enter. The trap doors would be held up by a peg which had a string attached to it. When a sufficient number of birds were in the trap, the string would be pulled and the door would drop enclosing the birds within.
The village church in Kingsley also provided nesting sites for sparrows, the large metal, funnel like tops to the drain pipes were of particular favour and provided a rich source of sparrows eggs for little boys who, legally then, collected birds egg as a hobby. I wish I had a pound for every time I have scaled up the drain pipes of the church.
The trees in the church yard also provided nesting sites for the, now rare, tree sparrow. They particularly liked the holly trees which was a bit of problem as accessing their nests usually involved getting badly scratched. I wonder if there are still tree sparrows nesting in the holly today? I would like to think there are.
Of course, egg collecting became illegal in 1954 when I was nine, I have to say, country boys were not impressed by that piece of legislation. Personally, I don't think that egg collecting, in it's then form, did a great deal of damage, for a start, money was not involved. But nothing stays the same and life moves on. In general terms politicians spend a great deal of their time banning things and continue to do so, but has life improved as a result? I somehow doubt it.