A row of house sparrows perched on a metal railing

House sparrows are very social birds and often gather in flocks. They also prefer to nest close together. © Mike Pennington (CC BY-SA 2.0) via geograph

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House sparrow (Passer domesticus)

A noisy, gregarious bird, the house sparrow is a regular in towns and gardens, taking advantage of our scraps and crumbs. The house sparrow is so successful that it has managed to colonise most of the world.

Explore facts about this cheerful opportunist.

A male house sparrow splashes water in a puddle with a female house sparrow by his side

A male and female house sparrow (Passer domesticus) bathing. Courtesy of piqsels (CC0 1.0).

House sparrow fast facts

  • Scientific name: Passer domesticus
  • Length: 14-15cm
  • Wingspan: 21-25.5cm
  • Weight: 24-38g
  • Average lifespan: 3 years
  • UK population: 5.3 million pairs
  • UK conservation status: red list, protected
  • IUCN Red List category: least concern

What do house sparrows look like?

The house sparrow is slightly larger and chunkier than other sparrows, with a shorter tail and a more rounded head. The female is usually slightly smaller than the male.

Their beaks are quite short and chunky - a multi-purpose tool suited to a varied diet.

A male house sparrow perches on a flowering plant, while a female house sparrow flies towards it

Male and female house sparrows have different colouring. Here, the male is on the left. Females have plainer plumage. So do juveniles. © Walter Baxter (CC BY-SA 2.0) via geograph

Males have a grey cap, a streaky brown back and chestnut wings with white wingbars. The birds' undersides are grey with a black bib. The size of the bib varies with age. It has long been thought to indicate social status, but recent research has put this in doubt.

In contrast, females and juveniles have brown plumage all over, although their undersides are a paler buff colour.

Close up of a male house sparrow on a lawn

Male house sparrows have a black bib and the top of their head is grey. Image courtesy of PublicDomainImages via Pixabay

Tree sparrows - the UK's only other sparrow species - look similar to male house sparrows. They can be distinguished by the presence of a black spot on each cheek and the fact that the top of their head is brown rather than grey.

Close up of a tree sparrow on a ledge

Male and female tree sparrows both look similar to male house sparrows, but with black cheek spots and brown crowns. Image courtesy of PickPik.

What do house sparrows eat?

The house sparrow's varied diet mainly consists of seeds, grains, nuts and scraps. It often visits bird feeders in gardens.

Insects and other invertebrates are an important part of a house sparrow chick's diet.

A female house sparrow approaches a tree hole with a caterpillar in its beak

A female house sparrow feeding a caterpillar to her chick © Alan Vernon (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Where do house sparrows live?

House sparrows are native to most of Europe, Asia and parts of north Africa. These birds have also colonised most of the world, including the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. They have the biggest range of any wild bird.

In the UK, house sparrows are widely distributed throughout rural and urban areas, apart from in the Scottish Highlands and some other upland areas.

Nearly two-thirds are associated with cities, towns and villages.

A male house sparrow perched on a plant, surrounded by greenery

House sparrows are widely distributed across most of the UK. This one was photographed on the Isles of Scilly in Cornwall. © Richard Croft (CC BY-SA 2.0) via geograph

In urban areas, house sparrows can often be seen opportunistically feeding on scraps and rubbish, as well as visiting bird tables and feeders. In rural areas, flocks feed on fields of grain, using their chunky beaks to crack open seeds.

A female and a male house sparrow on a bird feeder full of seeds

House sparrows eat a range of foods and often visit garden bird feeders containing seeds, like this pair. Image courtesy of pxfuel (CC0 1.0).

Although house sparrows are still considered commonplace, recent monitoring indicates that they are disappearing from our cities. Estimates suggest that in London this decline could be as much as 71% since 1995.

House sparrow behaviour, breeding and nesting

House sparrows typically raise two or three broods a year, sometimes four. Although nesting has been observed all year round, the main season is from April to August.

House sparrows nest in loose colonies - in dense bushes, hedges and creepers, as well as in nest boxes and crevices in buildings.

Nests are built from dry grass or straw and lined with feathers, hair, string and paper. They are sometimes as little as 20 to 30 centimetres apart.

A house sparrow with grass in its beak

A female house sparrow gathering dry grass for her nest © John Haslam (CC BY 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Female house sparrows typically lay two to five eggs, but as many as seven have been recorded in a single clutch.

Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch after 11 to 14 days. They also share nesting duties equally and 14 to 16 days after hatching, the chicks fledge. For the next week the chicks are unable to feed themselves, so the male will continue to care for them whilst the female prepares for the next brood.

An adult male sparrow with a juvenile

A male house sparrow with a fledgling © Dariusz33 (CC BY-SA 4.0) via Wikimedia Commons

House sparrows are a sedentary species, rarely travelling more than two kilometres from where they hatched and usually more like 300 metres.

How to spot a house sparrow

House sparrows are happy to feed and breed near people, so are easy to observe. Listen out for their cheeps as well. 

A male house sparrow peeks out of a nest made of mud

House sparrows sometimes move into old house martin nests under the eaves of a building, like this male has done © Andrew Gray (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

House sparrows are sociable birds so you will often see several together as a noisy flock in trees in parks, gardens and even in town centres.

If you drop small amounts of bird seed or crumbs on the ground near a flock, they will quickly come down to grab a morsel. Or you could put out a simple bird feeder made from a bottle. It won't be long before a house sparrow visits.

Hear a house sparrow's call on xeno-canto.

A few house sparrows on a table

House sparrows looking for crumbs. Image courtesy of pxfuel (CC0 1.0).

Conservation of the house sparrow

Data suggests the UK's house sparrow population declined by 66% between 1977 and 2015, with urban populations faring worse than rural ones.

The reduction in rural areas appears to be linked to changes in agricultural practices, particularly a loss of winter stubbles and improved grain storage. This deprives the birds of valuable food sources.

The reasons for decline in urban sparrow populations aren't fully understood. There is evidence that less suitable foraging habitat, fewer nesting sites and increased cat predation all play a part.

Seven sparrows on a wooden fence

Although house sparrows are one of the most common birds people see in gardens in the UK, urban populations are declining dramatically. Numbers in London have fallen by as much as 71% since 1995. © David Mitchell (CC BY 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

House sparrow populations in Scotland and Wales have increased, but numbers in England continue to decline. These birds are now red-listed as a species of high conservation concern.

Conservation efforts are underway and researchers continue to try to identify the causes of urban sparrow decline.

Did you know?

House sparrows have been known to pluck feathers from live pigeons to line their nests with. 

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