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House Sparrow

House Sparrow
Conservation status: Lower Risk (lc)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Passeridae
Genus: Passer
Species: domesticus
Binomial name
Passer domesticus
(Linnaeus, 1758)

The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) occurs naturally in most of Europe and Asia, though it is replaced by allied forms in some areas. It has also followed humans all over the world and has been intentionally or accidentally introduced to most of North America and Australia as well as urban areas in other parts of the World.

Wherever people build, House Sparrows sooner or later come to share their abodes. Though described as tame and semi-domestic, neither is strictly true; humans, in the Sparrow's eye, provide food and home, not companionship. The House Sparrow remains suspicious and resents familiarity.

The 14-16cm long House Sparrow is abundant but not universally common; in many hilly districts it is scarce. In cities, towns and villages, even round isolated farms, it can be the most abundant bird. In parking lots, it is ubiquitous.

So familiar a bird needs little description, yet it is often confused with the smaller and slimmer Tree Sparrow, which, however, has a coppery and not grey crown, two distinct wing bars, and a black patch on the cheeks.

The House Sparrow's bill in summer is blue-black, and the legs are brown. When clean, the cock Sparrow is an exceedingly handsome bird. In winter the plumage is dulled by pale edgings, and the bill is yellowish brown. The female has no black on head nor throat, nor a grey crown; her upper parts are streaked with brown.

The juveniles are deeper brown, and the white is replaced by buff; the beak is dull yellow.

It is gregarious at all seasons in its nesting colonies, autumnal raids and communal roosts.

Although its young are fed on larvae of insects -- often destructive species -- no sooner can they fly than they are led to the fields, where grain is devoured and as much wasted.

In spring flowers, especially yellow blossoms, are attacked and torn to bits; crocuses, primroses and aconites seem to attract the House Sparrow most. The bird will also hunt butterflies.

The short and incessant chirp needs no description, and its double note "phillip" which originated the now obsolete popular name of Phillip Sparrow, is as familiar.

While the young are in their nests, the older birds utter a long parental "churr". At least three broods are reared in the season.

The nesting site is varied; under eaves, in holes in masonry or rocks, in ivy or creepers on houses or banks, on the sea-cliffs, or in bushes in bays and inlets. When built in holes or ivy the nest is an untidy litter of straw and rubbish, abundantly filled with feathers. Large, well-constructed domed nests are often built when the bird nests in trees or shrubs, especially rural areas.

The House Sparrow is quite aggressive in usurping the nesting sites of other birds, often forcibly evicting the previous occupants, and sometimes even building a new nest directly on top of another active nest with live nestlings. House Martins and Sand Martins are especially susceptible to this behavior.

Five to six eggs, profusely dusted, speckled or blotched with black, brown or ash-grey on a blue-tinted or creamy white ground, are usual types of the very variable eggs. They are variable in size and shape as well as markings. Eggs are incubated by the female.

Endangered species

In large parts of Europe, populations of House Sparrows are decreasing. In the Netherlands, the House Sparrow is even considered an endangered species. Various causes for its dramatic decrease in population have been proposed in the literature:

  1. More and more houses were built without roof tiles, or the construction of the roofs was so well done, that the sparrows did not have space left for building their nests;
  2. Decennia ago, when the horse and carriage were replaced by cars, less grain was spilt in the streets;
  3. Agricultural changes: often other crops than corn and grain were cultivated, and more insecticides were used, which meant a decrease of the number of insects that can be eaten by sparrows;
  4. More efficient building in cities which resulted in less rough areas within cities where the birds could find food;
  5. It became less usual in households to shake the table cloths outside after the meals.

Last updated: 02-17-2005 09:18:39