Just the other week, I had a genuine shock, one of those stop you dead moments (if you are a person of a certain age at least): my youngest informed me that Blue Peter had finished. Blue Peter. Most notable perhaps for the combustible Advent Crown and early product placement in the form of the use of industrial quantities of double sided sticky tape (why could you never get it in Woolies?). I however, remember it for the tits. And starlings, and blackbirds and maybe, just maybe, a cuckoo. Every year, Blue Peter, in conjunction with the RSPB ran a bird count. The idea was that you’d throw ‘Supersize Me’ quantities of nuts and seeds on to your lawn then over the course of the whole weekend count all the birds. We used to squat in semi darkness in my Mum and Dad’s bedroom, binoculars to hand, peeking through a gap in the curtains so as not to frighten the wretched things, and work on a rota system, roping in all wings of the clan. We were highly democratic: there was no pecking order. Anyway, as it turns out, Blue Peter is now on the C Beebies channel. We can all sleep calmly in our beds.
Blasted sparrows. That’s my main memory. Small and dull, with a touch of brown on their brown bodies, set off by their brown beak and brown eyes. And they were fast movers with a pugnacity which meant they didn’t brook any nonsense from their winged brethren, no matter the size of adversary. They were like flocks of dwarf bouncers orchestrating the other birds around the feeding zone to their will. Or rather, to their quantity: no birds dared mess with the sparrows, because force of numbers alone meant they wouldn’t win. Sparrows ruled. End of.
Not today. Today you’ll be lucky if you spot a sparrow in your garden. The rise in the number of house cats is typically cited. I’m not so sure: admittedly, I’m not that attuned to cats but there don’t seem to be demonstrably more or less than a few years ago. And I don’t remember the last time I saw a moggy wandering around with a clutch of sparrows hanging from its jaws, ready to barbecue or enjoyed as a carpaccio.
Link this if you will to the game of ‘beer can market share’. This highly entertaining game is best played from a push bike. Essentially, as you ride along, simply count up the number and type of beer cans in the verge; keep a mental note and then convert to a rough market share at the end of the ride. Stella Artois, Carling and Fosters seem to be the main winners, unsurprisingly, with pockets of San Miguel or Kronenbourg, generally in more urban areas, and more surprisingly, Carlsberg Special Brew which no longer seems to be the ‘on street drinkers’ beverage of choice, yet remains popular, verge-side. Recently though, I have converted this game to that of Roadkill Counting. This isn’t some sick festish. It’s just come into my consciousness: there simply seems to be more dead animals in the road. In a car you wouldn’t notice – let’s be honest, the animal is probably smoking the radiator as you hum along to Elbow and the kids in the back are distracting you from the badger you’ve just taken out.
And here’s cause of the sparrow decline. Pigeons. These are the new barrow boys of the bird world. Wheeler dealing for some knock off Trill and ganging up on the jackdaws for pecking rights in the manor. I know this. I know this due to the roadkill count. Pigeons are right up there you see, and truth be told it’s quite sad. For the artless pigeon doesn’t take death in its stride. No, the hapless things are generally lying, splayed in the road with a look of abject bemusement and surprise, rather like Arthur Dent reacting to the Vogons arrival on Earth. And their wings seem to take on statuesque shape and proportion. One, just last week had managed to land on the road, pecking for some titbit I suspect, just at the moment a Landie came along with its rather thin wheels and took it out in a graceful body shot. Rigamortis quickly set in, leaving the bird’s wings protruding up in the air, as if ready for take-off with its body level with the road. Thor’s helmet came to mind.
But there are no sparrows. There are badgers; hedgehogs (many); the occasional fox, pheasants of course (they’re the jumbo jets of the avian world – long slow take off. Alas, their flightpath is too often across a busy carriageway) and even birds of prey (mid swoop take out?). But no, the answer to the decline of the sparrow is this: pigeon eats sparrow; car eats pigeon.