Tree Sparrows in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)


Once common around arable farms, where it could get winter food from spilled grain and stubble fields, the Tree Sparrow is now something of a rarity that few people see in the county. Changing methods in farming, combined with notorious natural fluctuations, have caused a 95% fall in numbers nationally since 1970.

In Cumbria there are now only a small number of resident populations. For example, in South Cumbria there is a small breeding population in the Gleaston/Dendron area, another on the Cartmel Peninsula and one or two round Kendal. It is perhaps a little more numerous on the Solway Plain and in the Eden Valley.

Unlike its cousin, the larger and more urban House Sparrow, both sexes have similar plumage. They look a little more “dapper” than the House Sparrow. The all brown head contrasts well with the white cheek patch that extends all round the nape – the distinctive black smudge on the white cheek make this species instantly recognisable…if you can find the species in the first place. The male House Sparrow (on the right) has a less strikingly white cheek patch, no black blotch and the head is a lighter brown with a grey crown of course.

Although the name correctly suggests a tree nesting species, the Tree Sparrow will also use holes in buildings and nest-boxes. Several pairs nest in the old walls of Gleaston Water Mill (and a few more in the old Castle nearby). There has probably been a mill here since the mid-1300’s and one is tempted to imagine dozens of these birds feeding on the spilled grain that has been brought along rutted lanes by cart. The present mill is Georgian, built from local limestone, sandstone and slate, and has been lovingly restored by the present owners. In May you can sit in the sun with a cup of coffee from the cafe and watch as the Tree Sparrows take insects and caterpillars into their tiny nesting holes. This is a working water mill that is well worth a visit, even if you have seen Tree Sparrows elsewhere! Nesting in the same wall is a pair of Kestrels, which can be watched by remote camera, as can a hive of honey bees.

In 2008 the RSPB set up the Cumbria Tree Sparrow project, an extension of one currently operating in Lancashire and Cheshire. The aim is to increase the number and range of Tree Sparrows by providing nest boxes and advice to landowners.