Male House Sparrow U.S. Geological Survey Department of the Interior/USGS U.S. Geological Survey.Photo by John J. Mosesso

“A certain traveler who knew many continents was asked what he found most remarkable of all. He replied: the ubiquity of sparrows.” Adam Zagajewski, “Another Beauty, 2002”

“The different county treasurers of Illinois have paid out in round figures $8,000 as bounty money under a law allowing 2 cents for the head of each sparrow killed during December, January and February in that State. This shows that about 450,000 sparrows were killed, but the frisky bird seems more numerous than ever.” 3/16/1892 article in an Indiana, Pa. paper.

The common House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is a personification of the
“little brown bird.” Also known as the English Sparrow, it is typically found where people live or grow crops. It is reviled by just about everyone who feeds birds because it chases away native species.

House Sparrows originally evolved in Africa, before homo sapiens. Their habitat was probably low, scrubby bushes. When humans began practicing agriculture around 12,000 years ago, this spunky, adaptable bird found its niche around people who would grow seeds for them.  As people radiated out from Africa into Eurasia, so did the sparrow

More than 4,000 studies have been performed on this easily available species, not so much to elucidate the life of the sparrow as to explore general scientific topics from circadian rhythms to evolutionary theory. Unknowns remain about the house sparrow itself, including the development of nestlings, habitat requirements, how mates attract each other, nest-building, and nest parasites.

Males and female are easily differentiated. Both sexes are stocky, medium-sized birds, heavily streaked with black on their backs, with heavy finch-like bills. The handsome breeding male has a grey crown bordered by rufous (reddish-brown)on both sides, rufous on the back of his neck (the nape), a white cheek patch, a black mask around the eyes, a black bib and a black bill. Fall and winter males have brownish bills. Females have a gray-brown crown, a brownish bill, a pale buff eye stripe, a plain gray throat and breast, altogether much paler and plainer.

Accounts of the sparrows’ arrival in the United States are almost as ubiquitous as the bird itself and are frequently based on a compilation by W.B. Barrows in 1889. Cornell Birds of North America Online maintains “Successful North American introduction involved 100 birds purchased by Mr. Nicolas Pike for $200 from England released in Brooklyn, N.Y., in fall 1851 and spring 1852.” Michael P. Moulton’s 2010 article characterizes Barrows’ report as full of inconsistencies, perhaps compounded by Pike’s “35-year-old memory.” Moulton, also referring to Barrows, reports that Pike previously imported eight pairs of House Sparrows to Brooklyn from England in fall, 1850, kept them in cages, and released them in spring, 1851. The birds are reported as not having thrived, which the author interprets as “not seen again.” He speculates the birds did thrive where grain spillage, undigested grain from horse dung along city streets, and new farm fields beckoned.  Numerous later introductions are documented, in one instance to attack canker worms (inchworms) devastating trees in Central Park. Because house sparrows feed insects, chiefly fly larvae, to their nestlings for only four days after hatching, the anticipated eradication didn’t work.

Initially, Barrows reports, house sparrows were fed and protected from predators but once they became established, attitudes changed.  

House sparrows are seasonally monogamous and prolific, often raising four broods of five young per season, potentially totaling 20 young. They build their grassy nests in small household crevices and often eject native species like cliff swallows, bluebirds, and chickadees from nest boxes or other cavity structures.

These feisty, aggressive and communal birds communicate threats, mating, conflict, feeding, flocking, territorial defense and recognition through their calls, songs and chatter, all far from musical and all variations on “cheep.” They begin roosting together before sundown in short trees, shrubs, or vines with dense foliage, after they have gathered at a pre-roosting site around sunset to rest, preen and kibbutz. They leave the roost in the morning around sunrise.

If a subordinate bird approaches a dominant bird hopping on the ground, the dominant bird will react with a threat display, and if that doesn’t work, a chase ensues. They rarely come to blows. They vigorously defend only a small territory around their nest and chase intruders, males chasing males, females chasing females. At the feeder, which may be considered territory, a dominant bird may threaten or chase subordinates away. Anyone watching the activity at a feeder should be able to figure out who is boss.

In the bird world, males often put much effort and energy into fancy feathers and fancy flights, but the female is in charge. Ornithologists do not know what features attract females to males. Perhaps the healthier and stronger the male appears (to humans, at least), the healthier he is. One hypothesis was that the blacker and larger the bib, the more appealing to the female. Recent research has questioned that hypothesis in favor of the blacker the bill, which is correlated with a greater amount of testosterone. Perhaps the larger the male’s bib, the higher his rank in the flock. Other research found that the plain female looks for the plain male for a mate, preferring that to no mate at all. This research suggests that the not-so-handsome male may be a better parent. Clearly, more study is needed.

Feeder enthusiasts might not have noticed, but Breeding Bird Surveys noted a decline in house sparrow numbers in both England and the U.S. Hypotheses implicate changed farming practices to monocultures, increased spraying of insecticides (reducing insects for young), and decreased spilled grain and weeds.

Libby Hill

Libby Hill is the author of "The Chicago River: a Natural and Unnatural History. She has been writing about birds and trees and Evanston's natural history for the Roundtable since 2004.