House sparrow: the bird profiles

Hannah
Hannah
Hannah
Hannah

I am particularly interested in garden wildlife which is why I did my Master's degree with a focus on "animal ecology". I am convinced that beneficial insects and wildlife are a sustainable and effective alternative to many of the products we use on our plants. I am also a passionate birdwatcher and rarely go for a walk without my binoculars.

Favourite fruit: kiwi, apple and redcurrant
Favourite vegetables: tomatoes and green beans

Know your tree sparrow from your house sparrow? Can you tell the difference between a male and female? Here’s everything you should know about the house sparrow

Three house sparrows perch on a bench
House sparrows are sociable birds [Photo: Rudmer Zwerver/ Shutterstock.com]

The house sparrow (Passer domesticus) is found all over the world. A small, brown bird, it is a staple of our culture and has successfully adapted to urbanisation for years. It would be nice to describe how house sparrows are found throughout towns and cities, whistling from the roof-tops. Unfortunately, this is an old narrative; the British Isles have seen dramatic declines in the house sparrow population over the last 50 years. Here is some information about the house sparrow, and some tips on how you can support this wonderful songbird.

House sparrow: key facts

SizeAbout 14-15cm
WeightAbout 30g
Breeding seasonMarch-August
LifespanApproximately 14 years
HabitatAnywhere where there are people
Food preferencesSeeds, insects and buds
ThreatsDecline in natural habitat and food supply

How to recognise the house sparrow

House sparrows are distinguished by their compact shape and powerful beak. A house sparrow’s back and wings are striped brown and black, and its abdomen, crown and cheeks are grey. It may be tricky to distinguish a house sparrow from a tree sparrow, however, they do differ: the tree sparrow has chocolate-brown areas and small, black stains on its cheeks.

house sparrow perching
House sparrows are some of the most well-known songbirds in the UK

How to tell the difference between male and female house sparrow

Female house sparrows are not as loud as their male counterparts. While the male has brown areas near his eyes that frame his cheeks, the female’s face is almost completely grey. In addition, the male’s breast and throat are covered with what look like black stains–stains that are conspicuously missing from the female.

Note: The area of black on the male’s breast serves as a status symbol. Its size is related to the bird’s fighting strength, and thus to its dominance. Outside of breeding season, this black area reduces in size and males become less conspicuous.

A female and male house sparrow stand next to one another
Female house sparrows (right) are plainer than males [Photo: Steve Byland/ Shutterstock.com]

How to recognise a young house sparrow

House sparrow chicks look like their mothers. However, this doesn’t last long! Barely eight weeks after hatching, young house sparrows lose their youthful plumage and, before winter, look just like an adult.

: A young house sparrow perches
Young house sparrows look like their mothers [Photo: Rob Christiaans/ Shutterstock.com]

How to recognise a house sparrow egg

House sparrows lay between three and six eggs per brood. The eggs are about 1.5 centimetres in size, white or grey in colour and speckled brown. The eggs are incubated in a spherical, messy nest made of twigs, stalks and leaves, which is lined with feathers.

Four house sparrow eggs in a nest
House sparrows lay between three and six eggs [Photo: Alan B. Schroeder/ Shutterstock.com]

What is the perfect habitat for house sparrows?

House sparrows can be found anywhere near humans. In a perfect world, this would be farmland, where the sparrows can search the fields for seeds. You’ll also be able to spot them breeding in the hollows of old buildings in the country. But if you live in the city, don’t worry! House sparrows also live in large, urbanised areas, where they breed in building cavities and in creepers.

Where do house sparrows build their nests?

House sparrows are very creative nest builders and love to breed in small colonies. In nature, they select tree hollows, or vacant woodpecker or swallow nests. In urban environments, they can be found in the cavities of buildings, under roof-tiles or in birdhouses. The size of the nest depends only on the space available to them, and varies wildly. Occasionally, they also construct free-standing nests.

A house sparrow enters a cavity in a roof
House sparrows are happy to breed just about anywhere [Photo: Marut Sayannikroth/ Shutterstock.com]

When is breeding season for house sparrows?

House sparrows breed between March and late August, and rear up to four broods a year. Their eggs are incubated for approximately two weeks – longer if it is too cold. After hatching, young house sparrows are fed in the nest for about 14 days, before flying the coop. Their parents will continue to supply them with food for another two weeks before they are fully independent.

Where do house sparrows spend winter?

House sparrows don’t migrate, spending winter in their breeding area and never moving far from their territory. In winter, the sparrows sometimes form large flocks, and search for food together.

A house sparrow in the snow
House sparrows spend winter in the UK [Photo: Maslov Dmitry/ Shutterstock.com]

Note: House sparrows tend to be life-long monogamists. Once they find a partner, house sparrows stay together for many years, and frequently revisit old nests each year.

What does a house sparrow’s song sound like?

Above all else, house sparrows chirp: constantly, and from a high vantage point. If they are excited or in danger, you may also hear the house sparrow launch a wild: “Tscherret-herett”.

Help the house sparrow!

The decline in the UK house sparrow population is alarming. Building renovations reduce the number of nesting sites and a reliable food supply is hard to secure. Find out how you can help below.

What do house sparrows eat?

House sparrows feed mainly on seeds. Throughout the year, they can be found in fields looking for food in small groups. The sparrows are also partial to leaf buds and smaller insects; while rearing their young, house sparrows mainly search for protein-rich insects.

A feeding station for house sparrows should contain plenty of grains in winter. Sunflower seeds are perfect, but other seeds will work just fine. Be sure to add in a few mealworms if you can.

Which birdhouses are suitable for house sparrows?

House sparrows love bird boxes. Classic birdhouses with a round entrance hole at the front are just fine. The entrance should be around 32mm wide. Since house sparrows like to group together when breeding, consider placing several nesting boxes near one another.

Tip: You can easily build a bird box yourself. It’s a great family project!

A house sparrow perched on a branch
Especially during the breeding season, house sparrows like to hunt insects

How can I support house sparrows even more?

Whilst incubating their eggs, house-sparrows are dependent on insects, so it is best to avoid chemical sprays. These sprays not only reduce insect numbers but can poison the birds. Instead, design an insect-friendly garden, and consider growing a meadow of flowers. You will be handsomely rewarded!

Perennials are especially helpful for house sparrows if you wait to cut them back until after winter. Thistle and wild teasel seeds, as well as the insects wintering in their stems, are a natural food supply for the birds.

Many other bird species love a lively and bustling garden, such as the wagtail or house martin, take a look!

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