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I was pleased to see House sparrows once again topped this year’s list of the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch in England, Wales and Scotland, but we shouldn’t get complacent, they’re still on the ‘Red List’ of birds requiring the highest conservation priority, along with other species needing urgent action.

Over the past couple of weeks I have spent some afternoons dog-sitting for my daughter, which has given me the opportunity to catch up with the little flock that regard her garden, together with those of the immediate neighbours’ as their territory.

160222-Nat's garden-House sparrow after bathing

House sparrows love to bathe and sit on the fence to dry out

I don’t blame them for settling here, they have everything they need to live as easy and productive life as it is possible for birds to enjoy. Throughout the year they come and go throughout the day, enjoying the bounty of well-stocked bird feeders, a pond in which to bathe and hedges to provide cover and perching places. Every evening the whole community returns to roost safely within the prickly pyracantha hedge. Now they are well into the throws of nesting. Earlier on they began refurbishing last year’s nests or rebuilding any lost through winter pruning. There are perhaps 4-5 nests, sited close together, although the level of noise that emanates from within sounds like there should be more. A couple more pairs prefer the loftier location of the eaves above the third floor at the front of the house.

160222-Nat's garden-House sparrow after bathing 1

In the breeding season the dominant birds leave the safety of the hedges and perch prominently on the highest points of shrubs to proclaim their territory, although the individual territory of the male House Sparrow really only consists of the nesting hole and a very small area around it, which is defended vigorously.

160403-Nat's garden-House sparrow male

Dominant males have larger, darker feather ‘bib’ patches

Females judge males on the vigor of his behaviour and also by his plumage. The black bib and how it is displayed is hugely important for him and size matters. Apparently males with small bibs can be induced to behave more boldly if they have bigger and blacker bibs painted on them!

160403-Nat's garden-House sparrow male 1

160403-Nat's garden-House sparrow on elder

A younger male with only a semblance of a bib

160222-Nat's garden-House sparrow female perched

Dominant females join their partners, but tend to stay slightly lower down and prefer a little more cover

160222-Nat's garden-House sparrows eating greens

Female House sparrows eating fresh greenery

Every year, when the nests are built or refurbished, the sparrows systematically strip the soft fluffy seed heads of the pampas grass that grows in a neighbouring garden. I spent ages one afternoon watching them as they returned repeatedly to strip the stems and carry off the fronds. I assume they use the fluffy parts to line their nests, but wonder if there are seeds to eat too? I find this behaviour fascinating and have witnessed it in South Wales where pampas was growing and also in our garden in Spain. In each location they begin working on the plant on the same day, arriving sometimes in numbers, males and females and set to, detaching the fronds and carrying them off a beakful at time. The harvest continues over a few days until the stems are left bare.

160403-Nat's garden-House sparrows collecting pampas grass

160403-Nat's garden 2-House sparrows collecting pampas grass

160403-Nat's garden3-House sparrow female with beak full of pampas

A Starling pair are nesting in one of the chimney pots and they too enjoy the feeding and bathing facilities, also pausing to dry out on perched on the fence or at the top of the hedge. Still one of our commonest garden birds, its decline elsewhere makes it too a Red List species.

The bird in the photographs below is the male of the pair, identified by the blue colouration at the base of his bill; the female has a similar patch that is coloured pink.

160403-Nat's garden-Starling male in privet hedge

160403-Nat's garden-Starling male in privet hedge 1

160222-Nat's garden-Starling taking off

The male sings beautifully, sometimes from up on the roof but also from the fence and the top of the hedge. His mate doesn’t get out much at the moment, so must be sitting on eggs.

The starling was singing, hence the fluffed out throat feathers

The starling was singing, hence the fluffed out throat feathers

STARLING (f)-Sturnus Vulgaris

Starling female has a pink patch at the base of her bill

PS: The pampas grass is now just a collection of bare dry stems!