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The Sparrow

 14 May 2019  Blog

The sparrow is one of the most well-known species of wild bird. There are several different types of sparrow, but in general, they are all small, plump birds, with brown and grey plumage. Recently, they have been classified as "red" in terms of their conservation status.

Unfortunately, the UK breeding population has declined by around 70% since 1969, when the Birds of Conservation Concern list of endangered species was first compiled by wildlife charity the RSPB. This means the species is globally under threat, as red is the most serious conservation status.

Sparrow bird

© Marcin Perkowski / Adobe Stock


History of the species

Originating in the Middle East, the sparrow began to spread across Eurasia and North Africa with the growth of agriculture. It was the 1850s before sparrows reached North America.

It was reported that they were introduced to the United States deliberately in 1850, when the director of Brooklyn Institute, Nicholas Pike, brought over several pairs of sparrows from Liverpool. He paid $200 himself to ship them over and released them in spring 1851.

Several more pairs were shipped later in 1851 and released along the East River. He continued to purchase birds from England throughout 1952. They were kept at Brooklyn Institute during the winter and released in Greenwood Cemetery and Central Park in 1853.

Historians have suggested they were introduced to control cankerworms that had infested the trees, particularly in Central Park, Madison Square Park and Union Square Park. The sparrow population also spread naturally. In fact, since the mid-19th century, the species has reached just about every corner of the world.


Sparrow characteristics

Most commonly seen in the UK, the house sparrow, which is a member of the Passer family, was first recognised in 1760 by the French zoologist, Mathurin Jacques Brisson. Also known as the true sparrow, it can be found in most parts of the world.

They are small birds and have thick bills that are ideal for eating seeds. A house sparrow is normally around six inches long and weighs 1.39 ounces. The male is a chunky, full-breasted bird, with a grey crown, black bib, white cheeks and a chestnut neck, while the female is a plain buff-brown colour overall, with a grey-brown chest and underparts. Their back is a mixture of black, brown and buff. The female doesn't have the grey crown of the male.

House sparrows communicate with a short, incessant chirping call when they are both flocking or resting. Aggressive males give a more trilling version of their usual call, aimed at establishing their dominance over other males during the breeding season. They can fly at 24mph and when in danger, they can increase their speed to around 31mph.

As well as the UK being home to the house sparrow, a second species, the tree sparrow, is also resident here. You can spot a tree sparrow by its solid chestnut-brown head and nape of the neck. Both the male and female tree sparrows look the same.


Where do sparrows live?

Sparrows mate for life and produce two or three broods of up to seven chicks each time during the breeding season. They mainly feed on seeds, insects, cereals and berries, such as raspberries, blueberries and strawberries. They will also feed on scraps left on bird tables in your garden.

With an estimated 5.3 million pairs of house sparrows and 200,000 pairs of tree sparrows that can be found all year round in the UK, while this may sound like a lot, they are still given a "red" conservation status due to the rapid decline in their numbers over the past 50 years.

Sparrows prefer to live near human settlements, including in both rural and urban areas. They can normally be found around the edges of woodland, hedgerows and farmland. They will begin nesting in late winter and early spring. On average, their typical lifespan in the wild is around three years.

Various factors have been blamed for the decline in their population, including changes in the ecosystem, an increase in pollution and the loss of sparrows' natural habitat due to the growth of human population, more housing developments and increased industrialisation. This has left the birds fewer places to build their nests. Their main predator in the UK is the domestic cat.

Conservation groups are urging householders to take steps to try and preserve our sparrow population. People are being encouraged to provide food (in particular seed) and clean water on bird tables in the garden and to erect bird boxes to help encourage them to nest.

House sparrows have been proven to use nesting boxes and don't mind roosting close together, as nests in the wild have been spotted as close as 30cm apart. Among their favourite nesting places near human habitats are within packed shrubs, on ivy-covered buildings, in thatched roofs and under buildings' eaves.

If you enjoy seeing sparrows in your garden, feed them seeds. If you have a fruit crop that you don’t wish to share with them, use Henry Cowls' fruit cages and bird netting to protect your berries!

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