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House Sparrow

Passer domesticus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: PASSERIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

House Sparrow Photo

You can find House Sparrows most places where there are houses (or other buildings), and few places where there aren’t. Along with two other introduced species, the European Starling and the Rock Pigeon, these are some of our most common birds. Their constant presence outside our doors makes them easy to overlook, and their tendency to displace native birds from nest boxes causes some people to resent them. But House Sparrows, with their capacity to live so intimately with us, are just beneficiaries of our own success.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
5.9–6.7 in
15–17 cm
Wingspan
7.5–9.8 in
19–25 cm
Weight
1–1 oz
27–29 g
Relative Size
About the size of a Song Sparrow or Dark-eyed Junco, but stockier.
Other Names
  • Moineau domestique (French)
  • Gorrión domestico, Gorrión común (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The House Sparrow was introduced into Brooklyn, New York, in 1851. By 1900 it had spread to the Rocky Mountains. Two more introductions in the early 1870s, in San Francisco and Salt Lake City, aided the bird’s spread throughout the West. House Sparrows are now common across all of North America except Alaska and far northern Canada.
  • The House Sparrow takes frequent dust baths. It throws soil and dust over its body feathers, just as if it were bathing with water. In doing so, a sparrow may make a small depression in the ground, and sometimes defends this spot against other sparrows.
  • The House Sparrow prefers to nest in manmade structures such as eaves or walls of buildings, street lights, and nest boxes instead of in natural nest sites such as holes in trees.
  • Due to its abundance, ease to raise and general lack of fear towards humans, the House Sparrow has proved to be an excellent model organism for many avian biological studies. To date, there have been almost 5,000 scientific papers published with the House Sparrow as the study species.
  • House Sparrows aggressively defend their nest holes. A scientist in 1889 reported cases of House Sparrows attacking 70 different bird species. House Sparrows sometimes evict other birds from nest holes, including Eastern Bluebirds, Purple Martins, and Tree Swallows.
  • House Sparrows in flocks have a pecking order much the way chickens in a farmyard do. You can begin to decipher the standings by paying attention to the black throats of the males. Males with larger patches of black tend to be older and dominant over males with less black. By wearing this information on their feathers, sparrows can avoid some fights and thereby save energy.
  • House Sparrows have been seen stealing food from American Robins and piercing flowers to drain them of nectar.
  • The oldest recorded House Sparrow was 15 years 9 months old.

Habitat


Town

House Sparrows are closely associated with people and their buildings. Look for them in cities, towns, suburbs, and farms (particularly around livestock). You won’t find them in extensive woodlands, forests, or grasslands. In extreme environments such as deserts or the far north, House Sparrows survive only in the immediate vicinity of people.

Food


Seeds

House Sparrows eat mostly grains and seeds, as well as livestock feed and, in cities, discarded food. Among the crops they eat are corn, oats, wheat, and sorghum. Wild foods include ragweed, crabgrass and other grasses, and buckwheat. House Sparrows readily eat birdseed including millet, milo, and sunflower seeds. Urban birds readily eat commercial bird seed. In summer, House Sparrows eat insects and feed them to their young. They catch insects in the air, by pouncing on them, or by following lawnmowers or visiting lights at dusk.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–8 eggs
Number of Broods
1-4 broods
Egg Length
0.8–0.9 in
2–2.2 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.6 in
1.4–1.6 cm
Incubation Period
10–14 days
Nestling Period
10–14 days
Egg Description
Light white to greenish white or bluish white, usually spotted with gray or brown.
Condition at Hatching
Entirely naked upon hatching with bright pink skin, eyes closed, clumsy.
Nest Description

House Sparrow nests are made of coarse dried vegetation, often stuffed into the hole until it’s nearly filled. The birds then use finer material, including feathers, string, and paper, for the lining. House Sparrows sometimes build nests next to each other, and these neighboring nests can share walls. House Sparrows often reuse their nests.

Nest Placement

Cavity

House Sparrows nest in holes of buildings and other structures such as streetlights, gas-station roofs, signs, and the overhanging fixtures that hold traffic lights. They sometimes build nests in vines climbing the walls of buildings. House Sparrows are strong competitors for nest boxes, too, at times displacing the species the nest box was intended for, such as bluebirds and Tree Swallows. House Sparrows nest in holes in trees somewhat less often.

House Sparrow Nest Image 1
© René Corado / WFVZ

House Sparrow Nest Image 2
© René Corado / WFVZ

Behavior


Ground Forager

House Sparrows hop rather than walk on the ground. They are social, feeding in crowded flocks and squabbling over crumbs or seeds on the ground. House Sparrows are a common sight at bird feeders; you may also see them bathing in street-side puddles or dustbathing on open ground, ruffling their feathers and flicking water or dust over themselves with similar motions. From living in such close company, House Sparrows have developed many ways of indicating dominance and submission. Nervous birds flick their tails. Aggravated birds crouch with the body horizontal, shove their head forward and partially spread and roll forward their wings, and hold the tail erect. This can intensify to a display with wings lifted, crown and throat feathers standing on end, tail fanned, and beak open. Males with larger amounts of black on the throat tend to dominate over males with less black. When males display to a prospective mate, they fluff up their chest, hold their wings partially open, fan the tail, and hop stiffly in front of the female, turning sideways and sometimes bowing up and down. Sometimes, other males who spot such a display in progress will fly in and begin displaying as well. In flocks, males tend to dominate over females in fall and winter, but females assert themselves in spring and summer.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

House Sparrow populations declined by over 3.5 percent between 1966 and 2010, resulting in a cumulative decline of 81 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates their global breeding population at 540 million with 13 percent in the U.S., 2 percent in Canada and 2 percent in Mexico. They rate an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Scale and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Nest holes in trees and nest boxes are valuable commodities for birds that require them for breeding. House Sparrows are fierce competitors for these, and their abundance can squeeze out some native cavity-nesting species. After becoming common in North American cities, House Sparrows moved out to colonize farmyards and barns during the twentieth century. With the recent industrialization of farms, House Sparrows now seem to be declining across most of their range.

Credits

Range Map Help

House Sparrow Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident.

Backyard Tips

Many people regard House Sparrows as undesirables in their yards, since they aren't native and can be a menace to native species. House Sparrows are so closely entwined with people's lives that you probably will find them around your home even without feeding them. They are frequent visitors to backyard feeders, where they eat most kinds of birdseed, especially millet, corn, and sunflower seed.

Find This Bird

The best way to find a House Sparrow is to visit an urban area and watch for a conspicuous, tame sparrow hopping on the ground (it might help to bring a sandwich or some birdseed). You can easily attract them with food and they may feed out of your hand. In the countryside, look out for bright, clean versions of the city House Sparrow around barns, stables, and storehouses.

Get Involved

You can help scientists learn more about this species by participating in the Celebrate Urban Birds! project.

Why Did House Sparrow Numbers Rise, then Fall? Citizen-science data point to competition with House Finches.

Keep track of the House Sparrows at your feeder with Project FeederWatch

Help us find out how House Sparrow populations are doing in mid-winter by participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count

Report nesting activities of House Sparrows to the NestWatch citizen-science project. To deter House Sparrows from taking over nest boxes intended for native birds, consider the options noted in the NestWatcher's Resource Center.

You Might Also Like

House Sparrows: Complex and Intriguing? (BirdScope, Winter 2004)

Can We Have Your Sparrows? (BirdScope, Winter 2004)

The Trouble with House Sparrows (BirdScope, Winter 2004)

Sparrow Spectrum (BirdScope, Winter 2004)

Lessons from the Rattus rattus of the Bird World (BirdScope, Winter 2004)

Sparrows that Open Doors (BirdScope, Winter 2004)

All About Birds blog, Not Just Sparrows and Pigeons: Cities Harbor 20 Percent of World’s Bird Species, April 29, 2014.

FeederWatcher’s Notebook: In autumn, male House Sparrows are “disguised” as females