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What's Killing Off the Sparrows of Paris?

French media have a theory.

Parisian sparrows outside Notre Dame Cathedral, back in 2006. (Alexandre Duret-Lutz/Flickr)

Something is killing off Paris’s house sparrows. This common urban bird used to be so ubiquitous in the city as to scarcely draw attention, but since 2010, Paris’s house sparrow population has dropped by 50 percent. The huge drop comes some time after a similarly massive drop in London, where sparrow populations dropped by 60 percent between 1994 and 2004.

While their disappearance is alarming to say the least, the reasons for Europe’s vanishing urban sparrows remain perplexingly murky. Pollution, electromagnetic radiation and contemporary architecture have all been blamed. Now in a fresh twist on the discussion, the French media is pointing the finger at an entirely new culprit: gentrification.

The argument runs like this. House sparrows prefer to nest in nooks and niches of a type that are commonly found in somewhat rundown buildings. As a result, their population used to be especially thick in Paris’s quartiers populaires, or inner city neighborhoods where lower income populations lived in historic buildings, many of which could have badly done with a patch-up. Now that these neighborhoods are thronged with wealthier gentrifiers, their buildings have indeed been polished up, and as a result deprived of sparrow-friendly nooks.

The argument has a poetic appeal to it. In both London and Paris, once ubiquitous house sparrows have long been portrayed culturally as lovable avian equivalents to the urban poor, both in slang and popular song. In a period when lower-income urban residents are being squeezed out of the urban core, it’s tempting to yoke the birds’ departure into symbolic tandem with human displacement.

On its own, the argument doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Certainly, house sparrows like building nooks for nest sites, partly because the buildings emit some warmth in the colder months. Refurbishment has patched up some buildings, while attic spaces now converted into apartments might possibly be scaring birds off. But although refurbishment has patched up some Parisian buildings, it has not obliterated eaves or guttering, and sparrows also nest in trees, on street lamps and illuminated billboards, among other sites. It’s more likely that new development of buildings with smooth-sided, eave-less walls and roofs is in part to blame, though even that alone could scarcely have a huge effect in the historic fabric of inner Paris. It’s probably safe to say that an epidemic of fixed-gear bikes and organic bakeries are not murdering the fluffy, defenseless birds of the French capital.

That such an argument can gain circulation nonetheless points to another perplexing feature of Europe’s vanishing sparrows. No other argument can as yet conclusively account for the lost birds. London’s great sparrow disappearing trick peaked in the 1990s, right when mobile phones came into widespread use. Electromagnetic waves from cell towers were long pointed to as a possible cause, as they may disrupt the birds’ navigational abilities and cause them to shun areas where towers are heavily concentrated. This may well have proved a factor—it’s been fingered more recently as a possible cause for sparrow decline in India as well. But if that’s the case, why has the sparrow population decline in Paris come so much later than in London?

Looking a little deeper, some avian experts believe that it’s actually a dearth of available food that’s starving the sparrows out, as development and tidier management of green spaces has pushed down insect populations, while urban noise and poor air quality may also have an effect. Sparrow-killing cats may also play a major role, leading toward a tentative conclusion that sparrows are the victims of numerous different factors, combining to form a perfect, toxic storm.

If this is the case, getting them back may prove hard. To boost ailing populations, Paris would need to use design to increase the number of possible nesting sites and green areas (which is highly possible) and also do something about mobile phone signals and cats (which arguably isn’t).

In the meantime, urban house sparrows are much missed. While in the United States, the non-native bird can be seen as a menace with a reputation for bullying the locals, in Europe they’ve always been beloved, not least because they look so delightful. Bouncing around skittishly in mini flocks with feathers all fluffed up like pom-poms, chubby-looking sparrows would look like escapees from Disney’s Snow White if only nature had remembered to color them pink.

Adorableness should be no one’s criterion for preserving a species, of course, but as a marker of urban aridity, their departure from both Paris and London is surely a sign that we’re doing something—or many things—wrong.

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