House sparrow (Passer domesticus)

The House sparrow is an endearing, friendly little garden bird whose almost consistent year-round presence is always welcome. However, despite its notoriety as being one of the most sociable and gregarious birds in existence, it’s an understatement to say the sparrow has had a very tough time throughout history.

Purging, culling and murdering are three of the most commonly used words associated with the House sparrow. And it doesn’t stop there. From culture to culture, the sparrow has been relegated to lechery, over-promiscuity and commonality; even the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph (G37), which uses the sparrow as a determinative ideogram, means “badness”, small and narrow. And our own literary geniuses, Shakespeare and Chaucer, had a bone to pick with House sparrows, calling them lecherous creatures.

Despite all ancient, and relatively recent, attempts to remove the House sparrow, it’s clearly a stubborn little bird, as in 2016 it was voted the most commonly observed garden bird in the UK, according to the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. This is at the tail-end of years of decline, which, from the peak of the 1970s, saw the population of Passer domesticus reduce by up to 71%.

Hopefully, times have changed.

General characteristics

You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t recognise the House sparrow. My earliest memory of the House sparrow is from Beatrix Potter’s first short story about Peter Rabbit: “his sobs were overheard by some friendly sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement;” the scene in which Mr McGregor chased Peter about the garden.

Brown, of muted colour, and incredibly humble, House sparrows have managed to colonise the vast majority of the world. They are, without doubt, fantastic opportunists, and the fact that they eat almost anything gives them a great advantage when feeding in the garden (or elsewhere!): seeds, suet, peanuts and, of course, scraps, are some of the birds’ favourite fayre. In fact, according to a BTO Birdwatch Handbook, around 838 different types of food were found in the stomachs of House sparrows from research conducted in the 1940s.

For those few who wouldn’t be able to recognise a Sparrow, watch out for a bird with a chestnut brown back, white underparts and a grey crown. They have a tendency to congregate, hence the use of Sparrow colony nesting boxes, so look for them in groups in your garden.

The voice isn’t particularly distinct, with a continuous, relatively incessant collection of cheeps and chirps.

Can you spot the sparrow hieroglyph?

Breeding

It’s no lie that House sparrows are probably the most promiscuous garden birds in the UK. They live in colonies in cracks and crevices, although colony boxes can be used; and generally their nests are an untidy affair, sometimes made with a structure of rubbish such as paper, straw and string. Breeding typically begins in May, starting with the first of three clutches, each of which consists of between 3 – 5 eggs. The incubation period lasts between 11 – 14 days, after which the birds will enter their 11 – 16 day fledgling period.

Status

Despite the recent return of sightings in gardens across the UK, House sparrows are still classified as being in decline. According to RSPB research, between 1977 and 2008 House sparrows declined by as much as 71%. While this is true for England, areas such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have, in fact, experienced noticeable increases of Passer domesticus.

What caused the decline?

  • Less availability of favoured food, either for adults, chicks or both
  • Greater levels of pollution
  • Loss of suitable nesting sites
  • The spread of disease
  • Increased levels of predation, especially by Sparrowhawks
  • Electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones
  • Introduction of unleaded petrol, which produces toxic compounds such as methyl nitrate

Relations with humans

The sparrow has not had an easy time. A close cousin of the House sparrow, the Eurasian tree sparrow, was subject to elimination during the “Four Pests” campaign in Communist China, starting in 1958: the other three pests included flies, mosquitoes and rats. In a strangely ironic twist, Chairman Mao once called for the sparrow to be the Chinese National Bird because of its fortitude against entrapment: the fact that the bird would rather starve to death than be held captive was considered as great symbolic importance. Furthermore, its simple plumage denoted humility, which has traditionally been seen as a virtue throughout Chinese history. Despite this, it was eventually decided that sparrows should go because they ate too much grain.

Back to our own House sparrows (Passer domesticus), you may or may not have heard of “Sparrow Pie”, known famously for its apparent aphrodisiac properties. Well, it was a common dish back in the day, enjoyed by many. Thankfully, it is not so common anymore.

Also featured in folklore, it used to be told that should a House sparrow enter one’s house, there would most certainly be an impending death. The only solution was to kill the bird to prevent the death. In a more macabre version of this tale, if a person were to catch the bird in their house and do nothing, they would surely die.

10 interesting House sparrow facts

  1. House sparrows have been associated with humans as far back as 10,000 years.
  2. House sparrows have been kept as pets throughout history, despite their lack of colourful plumage or attractive songs
  3. Early 20th century saw the formation of Sparrow Clubs responsible for the culling of many millions of birds and eggs, in an attempt to control numbers of the perceived pest
  4. Domino Day (2005) saw a Sparrow sneak into the Frisian Expo Centre in Leeuwarden during preparations for Domino Day, and knock over more than 32,000 dominoes. This specific sparrow became known as the domino sparrow (dominomus)
  5. The House sparrow is frequently used to represent the vulgar, lewd and uncouth
  6. There’s a hymn about the House sparrow “His eye is on the Sparrow”.
  7. The actual cause of decline is still a mystery
  8. The House sparrow used to be Britain’s most common bird between 1994 and 2000
  9. House sparrows aggressively defend their nest holes
  10. The oldest wild House sparrow lived for nearly two decades

House sparrow bird food

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A fantastic premium ‘starter’ mix for attracting a whole host of different garden birds, Ultiva® Everyday Seed Mix is a combination of the most popular bird food ingredients.

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Premium Sunflower Hearts

These highly nutritious and oil-rich sunflower hearts for wild birds come without the husks of complete sunflower seeds.

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Premium Suet Balls

Our premium suet balls each contain over 90g of high grade beef suet, wheat, peanuts and added dried mealworms too! We guarantee your garden visitors will love this new recipe.

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Premium Bird Peanuts

High quality, recent crop, aflatoxin-tested wild bird peanuts. Rich in fibre, fat and protein, they are a nutritious year-round food for a wide range of garden birds.

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