The House Sparrow

By Elaine Farragher

The house sparrow is just too familiar for people to be bothered with. Lets face it, everywhere you look there are dozens of them, and in the evening, sometimes hundreds of them in one small area. If familiarity breeds contempt, the house sparrow must be one of the most contemptible birds in existence.

But let’s take another look at the house sparrow, and consider it for itself. For in spite of some drawbacks, it is part of nature, and there are few parts of nature that aren’t fascinating.

One of the reasons for its lack of popularity, other than its abundance, is the fact that the house sparrow is an alien bird imported from Europe that has beaten out some of our native species by competing with them for nest sites. The good news here is that the sparrows’ population has stabilized – in fact their numbers have gone down.

The sparrow began its takeover when it was introduced into Brooklyn, NY about 1850. The entire North American population is said to be descendant from only a few birds released at that time in Central Park. They didn’t take long to spread all over the continent. But an actual decline began with the invention of the automobile. One of the most reliable foods had been horse feed, a source that dwindled along with the horse. So, believe it or not, there actually used to be many more house sparrows than there are today.

Sparrows are obviously successful breeders, and some of their more interesting behaviour involves courtship displays. Have you ever noticed a group of noisy and excited sparrows hopping about and wondered what the big ruckus was all about? Look closely and you will see only one female, but many males (the males have a black bib, the females don’t). The hopeful and frantic males display in front of the female, by continually hopping and bowing and occasionally pecking at her. This behaviour is common and happens just about any month of the year, but especially in January through July.

Sparrows like to nest in nooks and crannies of buildings, but if they must nest in a tree in the open, they build a spherical nest the size of a soccer ball, with the entrance on one side. If you want to find a sparrow nest, the best time is in spring, when the male is trying to attract a mate. He usually stands within a few feet of his chosen nest site, chirping repeatedly. When a female arrives, he will fly back and forth, trying to persuade her to the nest.

The sparrow is a true home-body. Its nest is a focal point of its daily existence for almost the entire year. The sparrow doesn’t raise one brood and then abandon the nest after a couple of months like many birds. It works hard raising as many as three broods, one after the other. When they are finally all finished for the year, and while they are molting, the parents leave the nest for a time in late summer to congregate together in those huge communal flocks that are so hard to ignore. But in fall, they go home again, back to their nests and occupy them all through the winter. For this reason, nest building and maintaining is not just a spring activity for sparrows, but can be seen all year round, except in late summer. On cold winter nights, both members of a pair are often on the nest together, keeping warm.

Sparrows like to gather on ivy-covered walls or dense plantings during fall and winter evenings, but also during midday, in smaller numbers. It is thought that these gatherings may be information sharing sessions about the best places to find food. The ones that haven’t found food follow the ones that have to the feeding ground when the roost breaks up. Starlings <197> another highly successful species <197> have similar behaviour.

Many people object to the fact that sparrows seem to be the main guests at their bird feeders. There are a few things that can be done to lessen the sparrows’ dominance here. Sparrows prefer feeding on the ground or at well anchored feeders. Hanging feeders are less attractive to them. Also, though they will eat sunflower seeds, they aren’t crazy about them, and much prefer corn and baking products. So try to avoid these foods as much as possible. If you would like to save a nesting box for another bird species, don’t put a perch at the entranceway. Sparrows like perches, but most other species don’t need one.

Sparrows are cute, spritely, active little things, although they can also be a nuisance. Observing them can be an interesting and rewarding experience.

Elaine Farragher, August 1988

Subject headings

Birds - Birdwatching - Nature