What is urban ecology?

Urban ecologyUrban ecology examines the relationships between humans, plants and animals and their environment within urban (that is a densely populated area) settings.

Why does it matter?
By examining these urban environments within the context of a wider ecosystem we are ultimately able to build and design healthier and more biodiverse communities. Urban ecology matters because by 2030 it is predicted that 60% of the human population will be living in an urban setting.

What can you do?
Make yourself aware of the impact your choices have on your environment so that you can make more informed decisions. These may be decisions about the best way to reroof your home, how to design a wildlife friendly garden or how to preserve your local green space.

I will be providing more information about this in forthcoming posts and will direct you to relevant websites.

Building a nestbox for house sparrows

Modern housing often prevents nesting opportunities for house sparrows and other species. Erecting a nestbox will provide a much needed home for your local sparrows. House sparrows will begin prospecting for nest sites as early as January in preparation for nesting in April through to August so aim to have your box sited as soon as summer ends in preparation for the next year’s brood. Don’t forget that you need a 32mm sized entrance hole to accommodate house sparrows. Avoid south facing walls and put the nestboxes as high as you can under the eaves of your home.

Before you make your birdhouse
It is worth investigating which birds are regular visitors to your garden. This will help you to determine what size birdhouse you wish to build, and how big the entry hole will be as some species of bird – as well as squirrels – will rob a nest and can kill the chicks.

  • 25mm (1inch) is large enough for coal tits, marsh tits and blue tits only
  • 28mm is big enough to allow great tits
  • 32mm will allow sparrows, nuthatches and finches access to the birdhouse

You’ll also need to choose a suitable site for your birdhouse. It needs to be ideally 2 to 3 metres above ground level at the very least. The birdhouse should be sited away from ledges or bushes where predators like cats can gain access to them. You should also consider where the prevailing winds and rain come from, and site your homemade birdhouse in a sheltered spot. The site should be quiet, away from feeders with a clear flight path.

Angling the birdhouse slightly so that the rain will run off away from the entrance may help. The birdhouse design described in this article has an overhanging roof, which will aid water drainage. Also make sure that the birdhouse won’t be baked in any sunshine. Ideally a north to south easterly facing direction will avoid any weather-related problems.

Why make your own birdhouse ?
House sparrow nest boxA simple design is always best. Birds want function over aesthetically pleasing houses, and will only make use of a house that meets their needs. Your homemade birdhouse or nestbox needs a few fundamental features – an entry/exit hole or space, a small drainage hole in the bottom for any water that finds its way in and a tightly fitting lid. This means that cost of your homemade birdhouse will be minimal.

The birdhouse should be waterproof, but try to avoid being overzealous with any wood preserver or treatments, as the smell can be overpowering and deter birds. You should also only use water-based preservatives and preserve the outside of the birdhouse and away from the entrance hole.

It’s worth bearing in mind that perches that are commonly found on commercial birdhouses are also not necessary under the entrance/exit hole. They will only serve to encourage predators.

Building your birdhouse
The birdhouse (or nest box) is really quite easy to make. The materials you’ll need are:
• Wood or Timber Off Cuts: 12-15mm ply is an ideal material for a birdhouse. You will need one length 15cm in width and 150cm long.
• Sealant: A silicone-based aquarium sealant is best, and you must make sure that the brand you choose does NOT contain any fungicides.
• Galvanised Nails or Brass Screws.

You will also need the following equipment:
• Drill with 10mm wood drill, 25mm, 28mm or 32mm drill bit
• Pencil
• Tri-Square (any wonky cuts can cause drafts in the birdhouse)
• Measuring Tape
• Saw

The whole birdhouse can be made from one length of wood.
The first part of the wood length will be cut up to form the birdhouse sides and roof. The wood should be divided up as follows: Birdhouse Sides: From the bottom, measure and mark 20cm on left hand side and 25cm on the right hand side. Then from your 20cm mark, measure a further 25cm on the left, and on the right, measure 20cm from your original 25cm mark. This will create two sidepieces with a diagonal sloping roof. Then mark up the front section of the birdhouse – this should be 20cm in length.

The next part of the wood will form the roof, base and back of the wood and should be cut up as follows: Measure a further 21.2cm and mark off. This will become your roof. Another 11.2cm measurement will form the base section of your birdhouse. The remaining 45cm will then form the back of the birdhouse.

Before you cut all the sections out from the wood, be sure to put in your entrance/exit hole. The drill bit you use will depend on which birds you intend to use the nestbox (see ‘Before you make your birdhouse’). Make sure that the hole is at least 12.5cm from the base of the birdhouse, as this will help to keep the chicks safe. The cut that forms the front panel should also be roughed up on the inside to assist young birds to climb out. Using the 10mm drill bit, you should drill in a couple of holes in the ‘base’ section to help with water drainage.

Once you have cut out the sections, you can then screw all the parts together and seal. Make sure to leave at least 4 or 5cm at the top of the birdhouse on the back so that it can be screwed into place. The lid should be hinged with a thick strip of rubber on the outside and kept closed with a catch. Do not be tempted to look in on the nestbox until you are absolutely sure that the birds have vacated, as you might cause them to abandon their young.

This article in its original form can be found at http://www.makingyourown.co.uk/make-your-own-birdhouse.html

World House Sparrow Day – March 20th 2010

My good friend Mohammed Dilawar from India, who is also a house sparrow lover, recently got in touch with me to let me know that he set has up an annual global event – World House Sparrow Day.

World House Sparrow Day is an international initiative set up by the Nature Forever Society (Mohammed is the founder of this organisation) in collaboration with Bombay Natural History Society, Eco-Sys Action Foundation in France and the Avon Wildlife Trust in the UK.

The idea is that World House Sparrow Day will be celebrated on 20th March every year starting in 2010 and it will encourage people across the globe to celebrate the beauty of the House Sparrow, learn more about its biology but more importantly allow people to learn how and why it is declining in many parts of the world and what can be done to help.

World Sparrow DayThe event will be promoted and supported by a dedicated interactive website which will be the nerve centre of the whole event. Interested individuals and organisations can view the website and register the events they are organising to help celebrate this day. This will then allow people to see where their nearest event is or encourage people to set up their own celebration.

Many people across the world have undertaken research into house sparrow decline (I am one of them) and having this day enables all those individuals and organisations working on house sparrow conservation to come together on a common platform to celebrate house sparrows, make people aware of the house sparrow’s plight.

Mohammed is currently undertaking research in India and he thought a special day aimed at house sparrows will help in getting the attention of government agencies across the world as well as the scientific community and kick-starting them to undertake further research on urban house sparrows and urban birds.

In the UK the Avon Wildlife Trust is leading the celebrations and they are encouraging people in the area to their House Sparrow sightings, so they can build up a picture of where the bird is surviving in the region.

For more information on the cause of decline of House Sparrows in the UK and what can be done to help them please visit my website. Whether it is making sure you put mealworms out or erecting a nestbox for the sparrows in your garden please let me know how you will be celebrating this special day.

LIPU conference, Pisa

Leaning Tower of PisaOn 20th March I went to Pisa in Italy, not to look at the leaning tower but to talk about house sparrows. The Italian equivalent of the RSPB – LIPU – were hosting a one day conference about the sparrows that are found in Italy and I was invited to share my PhD research findings. There has been a dramatic decline in house sparrows in some urban areas of Italy and my talk was to show that there has been work in other countries investigating this phenomena.

In the north of Italy, hundreds of thousands of traps are set illegally to catch small birds. The birds are sold to restaurants or as caged birds. Also, hunters use them as decoy birds, the use of live decoys being legal in Italy. Many rare birds are shot, including greater flamingos, black storks, ospreys and short-toed eagles. Italy has derogated from the Birds Directive to allow people in some areas to net thrushes, lapwings, quails, skylarks and other species, for use as decoy birds. Italy already has one European Court of Justice judgement against it for permitting three species of wild bird (Italian sparrows, tree sparrows and starlings) to be captured and kept in captivity. In 2002, the European Commission sent Italy a first written warning because it had not amended its legislation in line with this judgement.

At the end of the conference there was a half an hour discussion session in which one attendee talked about how he goes up in to the surrounding hills of Pisa to shoot birds and he shoots about 50 sparrows a year. This was a man who had done this since he was very young and was of a generation who perceived this to be acceptable. However there is hope: the younger generation of Italians do seem to be against trapping and shooting of wild birds and they are the driving force to make changes

Who killed the cockney sparrer?

I was recently interviewed by BBC radio regarding my thesis findings and asked to contribute to a programme investigating the causes of the decline of the urban House Sparrow. The Radio Times highlights the programme’s value and their summary gives a good overview to some of the issues pertinent to urban species.

Who Killed the Cockney Sparrer?
Wednesday 18 March 9:00pm – 9:30pm BBC Radio 4
House SparrowNature detective Tom Heap investigates who, or what, is killing the common sparrow. Once one of our most common garden birds, it is now a rarity. Since the mid-1990s, London alone has lost more than two thirds of its sparrows and there are similar cases in Bristol, Edinburgh and Dublin. In an attempt to unravel the mystery, Tom delivers a sparrow corpse to the laboratories of the Zoological Society and observes the autopsy which demonstrates that the cause of death is not always what it seems. He speaks to experts from various conservation bodies including the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology to weigh the latest scientific evidence. Tom finds out about the chief suspects, including cats, sparrowhawks, unleaded petrol, mobile phones, garden make-over programmes and loft conversions.

A full copy of my doctoral thesis investigating the causes of the decline of the urban House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) in Britain can be downloaded from or viewed at my website.

Ecobuild 2009

EcobuildEcobuild is the world’s biggest event dedicated to sustainable design, construction and the built environment. The exhibition was held at Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre in London between 3rd and 5th March and is now in its 5th year. There were 800 exhibitors, as well as conference and seminar sessions.

I attended and presented a talk on ‘The provision for birds in buildings; turning buildings into bird friendly habitats’ within the seminar topic ‘Practical biodiversity – Making it happen’. The presentation highlighted the design options available and practicalities of how you incorporate birds within the design of buildings.

A full copy of my presentation can be obtained by emailing me.

Why house sparrow research?

House Sparrow nest boxHouse Sparrows (Passer domesticus) were once a plentiful species but in recent years their numbers have dropped alarmingly, so much so that they are now a red listed species, which means that they are a bird of conservation concern in the UK.

What are the wider implications?
House sparrows have lived alongside man for thousands of years and can be seen as a barometer for the state of man’s environment, almost like a miner’s canary.

Why does it matter?
If House Sparrow numbers are declining what is going wrong with/in our environment?

Why are they worth saving?
House Sparrows are embedded within our culture and lifestyle; they are prevalent in our literature, art and even merit a mention in the Bible. To lose this species would be to lose an aspect of ourselves and of man’s history.

What can you do?
Subscribe to this blog for helpful tips. Support organisations such as RSPB and Natural England who fund vital research.

Urban ecology and the house sparrow

I’m Dr Kate Vincent and this is my blog dedicated to urban ecology. I am an ecological consultant by profession and my PhD doctorate was awarded for my research into the decline of the urban House Sparrow.

Urban house sparrows by shopping tolleysAlthough my PhD research was published in 2006 I still play an active role in continuing research into the decline of the House Sparrow, nationally and internationally. This blog will reference my continuing work with individuals such as Will Peach and Denis Summers-Smith as well as organisations such as The RSPB and Natural England. This will include conferences, media coverage and further published research, and I will include tips on how you can help the House Sparrow, and other species, found in the urban environment.

My passion for urban ecology is practiced daily through my employment as an ecological consultant for Baker Shepherd Gillespie. In this role I am able to apply my research findings in a practical, commercial context. I particularly enjoy projects that allow me to embrace urban design and encourage sustainability.

More information about me and my research into the causes of the decline of the urban House Sparrow in Britain can be found at http://www.housesparrow.org/

For further information about Baker Shepherd Gillespie and the professional services we offer please visit http://www.bsg-ecology.com/