Common Name: House Sparrow or English Sparrow
Scientific Name Passer domesticus
(The information for this species page was gathered in part by Ms. Ashley Myerski for Biology 220W (Spring 2009) at Penn State New Kensington)
The house sparrow (Passer domesticus) (also called the “English sparrow”) is, possibly, the most widely distributed wild bird in the world. Its native range is Europe and much of Asia, but it has been introduced, both accidently and on purpose, into North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and numerous, scattered islands. It thrives almost anywhere that there are people. The only gaps in its nearly worldwide distribution are extreme tropical regions, deep forests, and extensive deserts.
Introduction of this species into North America during the middle to late 1800’s occurred at multiple locations over a 25 or 30 year time period. Dozens, and hundreds, and even thousands of birds were transported from Europe and released into urban (Brooklyn, Boston, Cleveland, Cincinnati, San Francisco, etc) and rural (Michigan, Iowa, etc) sites. The rationale behind this widespread importation and release is a bit murky. Control of insect pests on shade trees, accelerated breakdown of street and road deposited horse manure, nostalgia for familiar, Old World species, or just a contagious mania concerning sparrows have all been suggested. The house sparrow’s ability to nest in cavities and protected spaces of almost any human habitation, to consume a wide variety of stored seeds, grains, and discarded human foods, to distribute themselves rapidly through new environments, and to produce huge numbers of offspring in a single mating season have all contributed to the species’ explosive population growth in almost every area to which they have been introduced.
The house sparrow is a small bird (six and a half inches long) with a stocky body and a shorter tail and thicker bill than most native, North American sparrows. Males are very distinctively marked with a gray head and body, white cheeks, and a prominent, black bib on their throats and chests. The relative size of this chest bib is thought to be an indication of an individual bird’s degree of social dominance. Females are a relatively plain red-brown with lighter brown tones on their breasts and bellies.
Image credit: tgreyfox via Wikimedia Commons
House sparrows especially feed on grains and weed seeds but are extremely adaptable to whatever foods happen to be available in their environments. Berries, buds, grapes, and other fruits, along with insects and other invertebrates and even some small vertebrates like lizards and frogs all may be consumed by house sparrows. Insects in particular are important food for nestlings, and the timing and success of the house sparrow’s reproduction is directly related to the abundance of insects available to the adult sparrows. Discarded human foods (breads, French fries, etc) are also opportunistically consumed by these extremely adaptable birds. Almost every fast food restaurant has an established population of house sparrows that feast on the wastes, discards, and handouts generated by the restaurant’s patrons.
Mating and Reproduction
Male house sparrows compete for nest sites starting in the late winter or early spring. Their individual “territories” are quite small encompassing the immediate space around a good nesting hole or protected space. They can be quite aggressive around these potential nest sites not only toward males of their own species but also many other species of birds. House sparrows are known to evict bluebirds, tree swallows, and purple martins from nest cavities and boxes. The small individual territories coupled with the species flocking predilection often leads to large colonies of nesting house sparrows in sites of even moderate habitat quality.
Once his nest site is established, the male sings a simple, chirping song to attract a female. Mating occurs throughout the breeding season (from March to August). Mated pairs are thought to be monogamous through a given breeding season, but lost mates are always quickly replaced. A mated pair can have up to four broods in a single season.
The nest is an eight inch diameter, round mass of coarse grasses, sticks, straw, leaves, and almost any other building materials available. The inside of the ball is lined with soft grasses and feathers. The nest is tucked securely in a hole or other protected space and may be used by the birds all year round.
The female lays typically four or five eggs in each clutch (with a range of one to ten eggs). The female also does almost all of the incubation and even develops a bare spot on her belly feathers (called a “brood patch”) through which her body heat is efficiently transferred to the incubating eggs. The male may also sit protectively on the eggs from time to time but is not able to truly incubate them. Incubation takes twelve to fourteen days. After the eggs hatch, both the male and the female feed the rapidly growing nestlings. The nestlings fledge in fifteen to seventeen days. The male will then continue to feed the fledglings while the female lays the next clutch of eggs.
House sparrows, possibly because of their preference to nest in and around human habitations, have relatively few predators. Crows, grackles, jays, and some small raptor species may consume house sparrow eggs, nestlings, and possibly even adults. Gray squirrels and red squirrels may also raid nests. The major predators of house sparrow adults, though, are domestic cats.
House sparrows are a destructive, invasive species. Their aggressiveness toward other birds, tendency to form protective flocks, ability to reproduce rapidly, grow rapidly, eat a wide variety of foods, and nest in the close association with humans have allowed them to disperse across almost all of the continental masses on Earth. Some recent data suggest that populations of house sparrows may be declining, but it is expected that they will continue to be an abundant and very common bird throughout all of their current ranges.