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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.