Changes in winter farming practices may help explain a puzzling drop in the number of rural house sparrows in southern England, says a University of Oxford research team.
The birds once flocked around farms in such numbers that "sparrow clubs" could earn bounties for delivering heads, explains David G. Hole of Oxford. In recent decades, however, sparrow populations have plunged in enough locales to spark sparrow-saving crusades.
Theories abound to explain the declines, but Hole and his colleagues report in the Aug. 29 Nature that their experiments point to scarce winter food as a primary cause.
The researchers monitored nests on an Oxfordshire farm that had lost 80 percent of its sparrows since the 1980s. Sparrow pairs still raise the same number of fledglings as they did 2 decades ago. The problem, however, seems to be a low survival rate for sparrows during the winter, the scientists found.