Nature of Israel
This week, the Jerusalem Post reported on the decline of house sparrows, that are not seen in the streets of Israel nearly so frequently as they were in the past (see Jerusalem Post Article). Research suggests that food sources are scarce, and the house sparrow loses out to myna birds and parakeets, both of which are invasive species – originally brought to Israel as pets and subsequently released or escaped, and now living happily in large numbers. Israel has long been a home for sparrows; the earliest fossil remnants of house sparrows anywhere in the world were found in Israel in caves in the Carmel Mountain range near Haifa and also in caves near Bethlehem, just to the South of Jerusalem. In both cases these caves were also occupied by humans – so the sparrow’s association with human housing is long-established.
In the UK too, there is serious concern about the house sparrow. The RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has been collecting data about house sparrows since 1979. Since then, there has been a decline in the UK population by 60%. During the last few years, this decline appears to have slowed considerably to the point where it is hopefully now beyond the nadir and there has even been a small increase during the last year or two. What was the cause of the UK decline? It is thought to be changes in agricultural processes and city architecture, giving fewer places for sparrows to nest. And this is a pattern that is repeated across Europe.
The house sparrow is hardly the most glamorous bird in the world – they’re so common, even now in their shrinking numbers, that we get no excitement from seeing them and rarely would birders or bird photographers show any interest in them. So, does it matter if they slowly disappear? Well, yes, it does.
In 1959 in the People’s Republic of China, Chairman Mao decided that to prevent famine he would eradicate four pests – mosquitos, rats, flies and sparrows. Mosquitos, flies and rats because they carried and spread disease, and sparrows because they were eating China’s grain. As someone who is frequently targeted by mosquitos (the little blighters seem to take particular pleasure in consuming my blood), I do sympathize a little with Mao’s idea. However, interfering with nature is most certainly not a good plan as Mao found out at enormous cost. He passed a law demanding that all citizens should take to the streets and fields of China with pots and pans to clang together and frighten off the sparrows. His drive was so successful that within days China was purged of sparrows who, finding nowhere to rest, dropped out of the sky with flight exhaustion. Soon after, China was plagued, on a biblical scale, by locusts who flourished, without sparrows controlling their numbers. This resulted in a massive famine and the death of tens of millions of Chinese peasants. Ironically Mao had to buy 250,000 sparrows from Soviet Russia to reestablish a sparrow population that he had so successfully annihilated.
So, let’s celebrate the house sparrow and rejoice in seeing them on our streets. And by the way, much as it pains me, yes, we must have mosquitos too – they are pollinators just as are bees and butterflies, and actually nectar is their primary food source; not my blood or your blood.