Bird of the month for April is the humble house sparrow. Many of us might take this bird for granted, but it is one of my absolute favourite species. Growing up, this was probably the first bird I became aware of, almost certainly because it was one that nested in the eaves of our house and was around all the time as they don’t generally migrate.
They have been associating with humans for a very long time and aren’t usually found too far away from us, whether in towns or the countryside. And needless to say, I can hear them from my window as I’m writing this. Their ubiquity, though, doesn’t stop them being a fascinating little bird.
Little Brown Jobs?
House sparrows are often unfairly seen as brown and boring when it comes to appearance. They may not have the chestnut crown and black cheek spots of the dapper tree sparrow, but they do have a charm of their own. A wildlife guide I once met used to call them ‘little bobby-dazzlers’ and I totally agree with that sentiment.
Males have a grey crown that extends from the bill to the back of its neck and is flanked by a wide chestnut strip on each side. They also have a black eye mask, chin and bib. There is a possibility that bib size may vary depending on an individual’s fitness. Their backs are a lovely mixture of browns streaked with black.
Females are plainer, but the brown streaks on their backs are subtly pretty. They are missing the grey crown and black bib markings but have an obvious pale supercilium or ‘eyebrow’.
Sparrows are extremely social birds. During the breeding season, they nest close together in the eaves of houses or in tree holes. This proximity means that while they are monogamous, they can, and do, get up to some extra-curricular hanky-panky with other birds nearby. This is known as extra-pair copulation. As a result, a female sparrow’s mate might not actually be the father of all her young.
Outside of the breeding season, they tend to forage in groups and roost communally at night. One of my favourite sounds in nature is the noisy chirping of a group of sparrows as they settle down for the night at the roost. I realise this is committing the cardinal sin of anthropomorphism, but they really do sound like a large group of flatmates arriving home and filling everyone else in on their day. They will also all chirp loudly again in the morning as they disperse for the day.
House sparrows originated in the Middle East or Africa but now have the biggest range of any bird in the wild. Originally, this was down to successful colonisation of Europe and Asia from their point of origin. House sparrows are opportunists and have a varied diet of seeds, grain and scraps. They quickly learnt to associate with humans and find food alongside us. This made it easy for them to spread.
More recently, man has deliberately introduced house sparrows to places they may not have reached otherwise, such as North America and Australia. There is a famous story about an American Shakespeare enthusiast who was determined to introduce every bird named in the Bard’s plays to Central Park in New York, including house sparrows. The truth is a little more complicated than that, of course. They were introduced to Australia in the 1860s and are now widespread across the east of the continent.
Although house sparrows are found across almost all of the UK and are seen in most of our towns and cities, there are serious concerns about their numbers. Since the 1970s, rural populations have dropped by around 50%. This is thought to be linked to agriculture becoming more intensified, with less winter stubble to provide food.
Urban populations have dropped even more dramatically, with declines of 60%. As two thirds of our sparrows are found in towns and cities, this is especially worrying. What is particularly concerning is that conservationists are not sure what is causing these urban declines. Possible factors could include less availability of nesting sites as modern houses have less holes and cavities. A decline in insect numbers may also be involved as this is the prime food source for young sparrows.
House sparrows are one of our most overlooked birds. However, they are extremely charismatic birds and have been keeping us company around our homes for millennia. With worrying declines in their UK numbers, it’s time to start appreciating this chatty, perky little bird.