Urban Ecosystems

, Volume 21, Issue 6, pp 1053–1065 | Cite as

Depleted suburban house sparrow Passer domesticus population not limited by food availability

  • Will J. PeachEmail author
  • John W. Mallord
  • Nancy Ockendon
  • Chris J. Orsman
  • William G. Haines


Little is known about the environmental factors that limit the demography and abundance of wild vertebrates in highly modified urban environments. The House Sparrow Passer domesticus is a globally widespread species whose urban populations have recently undergone substantial declines particularly in Europe. The environmental drivers of these declines remain unknown. In a previous study we showed that invertebrate availability during the breeding season limited reproductive success but not population size in a suburban sparrow population. In this study we test experimentally whether year-round food availability limits demography and population size. Supplementary feeding involved the provision of invertebrate prey (during the breeding season) plus unlimited high-energy seed (year-round) at 33 sparrow colonies spread across suburban London over two successive calendar years. Thirty-three unfed colonies served as controls. Supplementary feeding increased fledgling abundance, but had no impact on overwinter survival or population size. We conclude that this depleted suburban sparrow population is not limited by food availability, and conservation efforts based primarily on food provision are unlikely to succeed. We also tested whether cross-colony variation in sparrow abundance was correlated with a set of potential environmental stressors including measures of predator abundance and pollution. Sparrows were more abundant, or showed more positive temporal changes in abundance, at localities containing large areas of seed-rich habitat and low levels of nitrogen dioxide air pollution. Further research is merited into the potential impacts of air pollution on the fitness of urban birds.


Air pollution Avian conservation Avian demography Food limitation Supplementary feeding Urban birds 



We are indebted to the residents of London who allowed access to their gardens and put out supplementary food each day. We are grateful to Howard Vaughan and Daria Dadam who helped with fieldwork, to Anne-Marie Knight (LiveFoodsDirect Ltd.) who managed mealworm deliveries to volunteers, and to Adam Butler and David Elston (BioSS) for statistical advice. We thank David Dajnak (Environmental Research Group, Kings College, London) for providing air pollution data, and Isaac Jamieson (Imperial College, London) for the loan of an EMR spectrum analyser and sampling advice. The study was funded by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Supplementary material

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ESM 1 (DOCX 26 kb)


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, RSPBThe LodgeBedfordshireUK

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