Of sparrow and butterbur


MOST birds are pretty quiet in the winter, but house sparrows (Passer domesticus)do not know the meaning of the word. They never seem to stop chirping. There are a lot of hedges round our way and they are alive with sparrows.

This is a particular pleasure for me, as the sparrows where we used to live in London met a sudden decline about 30 years ago. I can pinpoint the date almost exactly. My parents used to love seeing big flocks of them in the garden, and put out bird seed for them. Sometimes there were 50 or more. My mother died in October 1991 and not long after that the sparrows virtually disappeared. My father would say, ‘What has happened to your mother’s sparrows?’ They did not come back before he died in 1993.

The RSPB (see more about this outfit below) say that the sparrow population declined by 71 per cent between 1977 and 2008, and they are now ‘red-listed’ as a species of high conservation concern. They say the rural birds have been affected by that old favourite, changes in farming practice, but they do not know why urban birds have suffered. I have a suggestion for them: the increase in urban magpies, which systematically raid the nests of small birds. Domestic cats are another problem. The good news is that there is some evidence that numbers are increasing again.

There is a wonderful little book from the 1950s called Sold For a Farthing about a sparrow, which I wrote about here. 


We were puzzled this time last year to see stocky little plants emerging in woodland near our home. There is not much growing in January (though brambles are already coming into leaf) and we had to look at the books to find that these were butterbur flowers, which precede the large leaves. I went back to the same place on Thursday and took this picture.

This is a close-up.

The puzzle is compounded by the fact that these are not the typical English butterbur (Petasites hybridus) which have pink flowers.

Ours are Petasites albus, with white flowers, usually found in Scotland.

If the flowers are unfamiliar, you will almost certainly know the leaves of butterbur, which is widespread near water.

Apparently the leaves were traditionally used to wrap butter.  Butterbur extract is also thought to be an effective treatment for migraine, although I have read that the American Academy of Neurology stopped recommending it in 2015 because of serious concerns about possible liver toxicity, so I suggest you don’t try it.


This is the weekend of the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. I am no fan of the RSPB (though it is grimly amusing to see its contortions over bird-massacring wind turbines) but I don’t think it can do any harm to participate in this annual survey. Details here.

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