The house sparrow is probably the most widespread and well-known species in Europe, both in cities and in the countryside. It’s a very sociable bird and, out of the reproductive period, it usually meets in groups of at least ten individuals. It doesn’t have a particular fear of humans, whom it actually often approaches in search of food. One of its most characteristic behaviors is the “dust and earth bath”, a practice that it performs when it feels the need to get rid of parasites.
Everything you need to know about the house sparrow:
Loved by some, not so appreciated by others, the house sparrow accompanies humans like no other species of bird, always finding some source of food near its houses. Today the species nests wherever humans live all year round. The development of winter tourism has allowed it to penetrate to the top of the Alpine valleys. The house sparrow is very adaptable and is capable of discovering possible sources of food very quickly, it uses the opportunity to grab the crumbs of tourists in mountain restaurants, to steal grain from poultry or to sneak into barns. Once the authorities ordered poisoning actions against it, and today the species is in decline in some European regions. This is an alarming sign that environmental conditions are worsening even for opportunistic species such as the house sparrow.
- Scientific name: Passer domesticus.
- Weight: 22 – 32 g.
- Wingspan: 21 – 25 cm.
- Age: Up to 19 years.
- Diet: Insects, seeds, rubbish and food leftovers from men.
- Habitat: Agricultural areas as well as urban areas.
- Threats: The reduction of sites suitable for nesting, caused by restructuring and “modernisation” of old buildings, the decrease in prey species important for the feeding of the chicks, the decreased availability of food even outside the breeding season as a result of changes in agricultural practices. But also meteorological factors – particularly cold and humid years – flooding and predation at the nest.
About 15 centimetres long, for a wingspan of about 21-25 centimetres and weighing up to about 32 grams, the house sparrow is characterised by a dark grey vertex, brown nape, black throat and whitish cheeks. The livery, streaked with black, has grey-brownish shades on the back and on the upper tail; the streaks on the eye are also black, while the upper parts turn towards a white colour with shades of red and grey, particularly on the sides.
The female is easy to distinguish from the male because of its black throat, brown upper parts and greyish-white lower parts. It’s less easy to distinguish the male from other species of sparrows, if not for the dark grey vertex which represents a peculiarity unique to this species.
Native to Europe and Asia, the common house sparrow has been introduced as far as South Africa, North and South America, Australia and New Zealand. It’s a highly adaptable species that has colonized the most disparate habitats with the exception of excessively closed and wooded areas and deserts.
It commonly lives in close contact with humans, both in agricultural and residential and urban areas. Its dependence on human presence has been observed to be so strong that in fact it’s not found in remote areas without a stable anthropogenic presence.
It’s a mostly granivorous species, it feeds mainly on cereals, especially wheat, but also on vegetables, fruit, and even earth worms and insects. The specimens living in the cities and other urban environment also feed on bread crumbs, fruit and vegetables leftovers. Insects in particular represent a major part of its diet, it loves to eat caterpillars, beetles and aphids. Especially the young sparrows feed pretty much just on these kind of insects for the first couple of weeks after hatching.
Like many other birds, it needs grit to help digest the toughest item that are part of its diet. This grit can be anything from stones, shells of snails or eggs, grains coming from masonry; with a preference for rough and oblong grains.
It’s an incredibly smart and opportunistic bird, they can often be observed in the outside areas of restaurant and bars – and sometimes even inside – feeding on crumb and any leftovers they spot around the tables. They even manage to get into supermarkets, flying in front of the automatic doors to make their way in.
It’s a gregarious species and the new born are keen to stay close to the nest if the environmental conditions allow it. The couples are monogamous and remain together even outside the reproductive period. Episodes of infidelity often occur on the part of both the female and the male. In any case, the couple cooperate in the construction of the nest and in looking after the chicks.
Usually at each breeding season, between February and May, the couple lays 2-3 broods of 3-5 eggs each, which are incubated for a couple of weeks. After about 14 days the chicks fly away, but for another 2 weeks they will regularly return to the nest to be fed by the parents, who are very aggressive towards those who invade their territory or come to close to the nest.
Currently classified as in decline in the European Union, the species has an unfavorable conservation status even at continental level. Overall, there is a moderate decline in the breeding population within the European Community both in the decades 1970-1990 and between 1990 and 2000.
The species is studied very little, except for some contributions aimed at describing its distribution and abundance in relation to the presence of other breed of sparrows. It would be important to verify, from this point of view, which factors can decisively influence density, survival and reproductive success.
Federico Fiorillo is an Italian nature guide and content writer based in the magnificent Val de Bagnes, Switzerland. He’s an avid hiker and snowboarder and he travels to the great wilderness areas of the world to see the wildlife and birds he’s passionate about.
In 2008 and 2011 he joined two Brazilian wildlife field trips in Bahia and decided that observing birds in their habitat was going to be one of his driving passions. He completed a birdwatching course with EBN Italia in 2013, and then in 2014 and 2015 he travelled to South East Asia, Australia and the United States where he joined a photographic workshop at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah.
From 2016 to 2018 he lives in New Zealand, where he collaborates in environmental projects at the Otorohanga Kiwi House, which since 1971 protects kiwi and other New Zealand native birds, among the projects he worked hands on the most rewarding was the one aiming to release Brown Kiwis into the wild.
In 2017, he completes a backcountry survival course obtaining the skillsets needed to thrive in-stead of just survive in the face of adversity in the wilderness. In 2017 he also joins a NZ Bird Photography Tour in Ulva Island and at the Royal Albatross Center of the Otago Peninsula, home to the world’s only mainland Royal Albatross breeding colony.
After his travels across the South Pacific, following his experiences in 2018 he moves in the Swiss Alps where he’s now a nature guide leading tours in the alpine region between Switzerland, Italy and France. Leading nature walks and overnight hiking trips, teaching tourists and locals the secrets of the plants and animals living in this alpine region.
Inspired by an alternative lifestyle he believes in the importance of being in connection with the natural environment and feels the responsibility of interpreting the natural wealth of a site, educating and informing other of the different aspects of that particular area.