The Birdwatcher’s Guide to House Sparrows

These noisy, gregarious and bold little birds are far more fascinating than they might initially seem. House sparrows are sturdy birds with stout bills designed for eating seeds. The male and female share a similar palette of colours but look quite different, with the male having a brown head, white cheeks, a buff tummy and black bib beneath the head. The female is a duller shade of tawny brown with a broad, cream stripe from the eye to the back of the head. In terms of behaviour, house sparrows can usually be found near humans – they have always loved to nest in the crevices in our walls and adapted pretty quickly to using bird feeders too. They form loose flocks and are very social birds and often sing to one another from the hedges, squabble together over food and enjoy communal dust baths as a team. Although they seem common, house sparrows are actually on the BTO red list and are in decline across the UK, but that’s not due to a lack of hard work on the birds’ part (or an inability to survive bad weather).

A decline in invertebrate numbers, our preference for concreted drives, plus patio or decking in the garden, more modern and hard-wearing building materials (reducing nesting opportunities) and increased numbers of predatory cats are all factors that have reduced the number of breeding pairs. If you would like to bring the sparrows back to your garden, you can try planting hawthorn, ivy and wild roses, leave your lawn to grow to 3-6cm in the summer and leave it uncut throughout the winter, and leave a patch of grass and weeds to grow throughout the year – all perfect breeding grounds for the spiders and beetles needed by the house sparrows to feed their young. You can also add a terraced nesting box – ensure it is positioned under the eaves and that the entrance is 32mm in diameter. As a rule house sparrows mate for life, although a DNA study found that 15% of house sparrow chicks are the result of extra- pair copulation. After an elaborate courtship in which the male puffs up his black bib and shows off by aggressively defending his territory, the hen will lay two to three clutches a year of four to five eggs in a nest constructed using dried plants, feathers and paper. Chicks hatch after up to fifteen days and leave the nest within seventeen days, and have to watch out for cats, corvids, squirrels and birds of prey. Sparrows symbolise productivity, cooperation and hard work. They are linked with Aphrodite and true love in Greek mythology and they are thought to bring good luck in Chinese folklore. According to Celtic lore, sparrows hold our ancestral knowledge, and when you see a sparrow it shows the need to ask for additional support in life. In Ancient Egypt sailors would often get sparrow tattoos; should they lose their lives at sea, the sparrow was thought to carry their souls home. Only in some European folklore are sparrows seen as bad omens – the overwhelming majority associate them with positivity, so let’s all look out for sparrows!