The magic plant for Sparrows...
If you asked most people what the number one thing, they could do in their gardens to help wildlife is, they’d probably reply “build a pond”. And ponds are fantastic! Especially in the myriad of alien-like invertebrates they attract. However, when talking about House Sparrows in particular, while ponds are still oasis’, I’d personally say a nice thick Privet bush is the 2nd best thing, or even joint 1st.
This might sound crazy but think about where you see House Sparrows the most when out and about. Is it in your local woodland? Down by the coastline? Hopping about on the road? Or is it in those bushy green hedges lining your road?
In urban areas particularly, bushes are vital lifelines for House Sparrows, and although not acknowledged often, it’s clear as day when you walk down an urban road and see them shivering with the chestnut brown bodies of House Sparrows. And, out of all of the different species of hedge, the one species standing out as the most popular is the humble Privet, often as overlooked as its feathery inhabitants.
Ideally, you’d have a mixture of species comprising your hedge/bush. Maybe plant some Hawthorn for its high attractiveness to invertebrates (it has 149 insect species associated with it) or encourage some Old Man’s beard to climb up amongst it, the twirling stems making good nest material. However, if this isn’t possible, a hedge of pure Privet will do just fine.
There are several types found in Britain, the commonest two being Wild Privet, Ligustrum vulgare and Common/Garden Privet, Ligustrum ovalifolium, with Golden Privet, Ligustrum ovalifolium 'Aureum' a variety of Common/Garden Privet also quite common. However, Wild Privet is our only native species, with Common/Garden Privet and its various varieties having been introduced from Japan in 1885. The two species are incredibly hard to tell apart, the only real visible feature being that when young, Wild Privet shoots have minute hairs on their stems, lacking in the other species. But both species are excellent for House Sparrows.
But why is this? There are three main reasons. Cover, food, and more food. Food mentioned twice because firstly, the frothy white flowers of Privet attract pollinators and invertebrates, a crucial food source for birds at that time of year, as the chicks need invertebrates to develop properly. And secondly, their berries, timed to perfectly act as an easy food source once the chicks have fledged into independence (they’re also hugely popular with Winter Thrushes, migrating to Britain to feast on our glut of berries).
Finally, there’s cover, essential if House Sparrows are to avoid the army of predators lurking in our urban jungle. The whole reason they’re gregarious is after all so they have more eyes and ears to spot approaching danger. The semi-evergreen leaves and dense build of Privet provides ideal, year-round cover, and the thick layer of tannin on the leaves helps conserve heat in the hedge, slightly insulating the innards of the Hedge during harsh weather.
Privet is also ideally moulded to the House Sparrow’s urban lifestyle. It grows happily in a range of soil conditions (so long as it’s free-draining) it’s one of the most pollution-tolerant hedge plants out there, also tolerating a variety of salt and minerals, so able to grow on roads and pavements, and it grows quickly, often visible colonizing waste ground/rubbish tips, providing cover for sparrows.
And to top it all off, its chosen method of seed dispersal is through birds eating its berries, tying it in neatly with House Sparrows.
(Just two of the many invertebrates attracted to privet. The aptly named Privet Hawkmoth, first pic @thebirdsinthegarden, the second by Izzy Fry and the humble Buff-Tailed Bumblebee.)
So, if you’re looking to attract more Sparrows to your garden, why not plant some Privet! It’s very robust and hardy, you’ve just got to ensure the soil is free-draining, and that in times of extreme drought it’s given a good water every once a week. It’s also happy to live in partial shade, so a good choice if you’ve got a garden shadowed by houses. The only thing you have to make sure of before planting it is whether or not it’s classed as invasive species where you live, as some species like Garden Privet are in certain areas, and there’ll be rules about where you can plant it.
Hope you enjoyed! Let me know what you thought/if you think I’ve missed something out. Give me an email/message on social media if you have problems, or if you’ve got a question/want to know a bit more, don’t hesitate to get in touch!
Thanks for reading.