House Sparrow: Food, Habitat and Identification

House sparrows are familiar to many of us through their close association and preference for nesting within our houses. However, their numbers have been in steep decline and they are no longer as common as in previous decades.
House Sparrow
House sparrows are familiar to many of us through their close association and preference for nesting within our houses. However, their numbers have been in steep decline and they are no longer as common as in previous decades.

House Sparrow Description & Identification

Length: 14cm.

The House Sparrow has a grey crown, dark chestnut-coloured nape, black throat and off-white cheeks. Black, brownish and reddish streaks on its mantle, brownish-grey back, rump, and upper-tail coverts. They have a black streak through the eye and the remaining upper parts are off-white with a tinge of reddish and grey on the flanks. The flight feathers are black-brown with a reddish border, the wing coverts are black-brown, median coverts with off-white tips and the lesser coverts a rich brown colour. They have black-brown tail feathers with reddish margins. Their bill is black in summer and yellowish-brown in winter. They have brown legs and irises.

Females and the young lack the black throat and chestnut head pattern. Their upper parts are a dirty brown and their under parts are greyish-white. The only distinctive feature is the pale wing-bar. The House Sparrow often bathes in water and scratches about in dry ground, making small holes. Its flight is rapid and direct.

House sparrow illustration for identification

House sparrow call

The basic call is a loud ‘cheep’ with variations. A double ‘chiisck’ is strung together as a song and often emitted in chorus.

When and where do house sparrows nest?

Breeding starts from late April onwards, although nesting periods are highly variable. They nest in holes or cracks in buildings, among creepers or sometimes in trees. The nest is a round, domed structure with a side entrance, which is built by both sexes. It is constructed of straw, plant fibres, dry grasses and rubbish such as string or paper. It is lined with hair and feathers. There are between three and five, or occasionally as many as eight eggs, ranging in colour from pure white to greenish-grey, with black-brown or olive and ash-grey spots. Eggs may vary in a clutch, some appearing whiter.

Incubation is carried out by both parents, although mainly by the female, for eleven to fourteen days. The young are fed by their parents, mainly on insects and leave the nest after about fifteen days. Multi-brooded.

House sparrow habitat

Cultivated land and built-up areas of all kinds, including city centres.

What do house sparrows eat?

House sparrows mainly eat grain and other cereals, but also seeds, young plants, fruits, earthworms and a multitude of different insects. In fact, house sparrows are opportunistic and will eat almost anything, also enjoying food scraps left by humans. House sparrows are a familiar sight hopping around picnic areas or in groups when chips have been split on the pavement (the house sparrow diet is certainly varied!). When feeding them in your garden, they’ll enjoy nutritious peanuts, fat balls (such as our premium fat balls) and mixed seeds.

How can you attract house sparrows to your garden?

Placing grain, cereal mix and seeds in bird feeders or on bird tables is a great way to encourage these birds to visit your garden. You can also provide house sparrows with a place to nest by purchasing a sparrow nest box.

Do house sparrows use nest boxes?

Yes, house sparrows will use nest boxes that are placed high on walls or under the eaves of a house. These birds nest in loose colonies, so you can place two or three nest boxes side by side, as long as they’re spaced out.

Traditionally, house sparrows like to nest under cover — particularly in roof spaces or barns. Nest boxes help to replicate these natural nests by providing a small entrance hole and offering plenty of shelter.

Are house sparrows in decline in the UK?

Unfortunately, there’s been a decline in house sparrow numbers over the last 100 years, and the species is now on the Birds of Conservation Concern red list. This sad decline could be due to a loss of natural habitats, increased levels of disease and higher levels of urbanisation. When you’re watching birds flutter past your window, it can be easy to group sparrows together as ‘little brown birds’. But it’s a pleasure to take a closer look because the two species of sparrow native to Britain — the house sparrow and the tree sparrow — can be easily distinguished. They also look quite different close-up. House sparrows have a light grey crown (males) and tree sparrows have a solid chestnut-brown crown.

Just like their name implies, the house sparrow is often spotted in urban areas, while the tree sparrow is usually found in the countryside, in hedgerows and woodland. Tree sparrows nest in thick hedges or cavities in trees, and house sparrows nest in the holes and crevices of buildings and nest boxes. And their preference of habitat is also reflected in their personalities: house sparrows are often noisy and boisterous and tree sparrows are shy and quiet.

Where to feed

Bird Feeders – Ideally above 1m in height

Table – Open topped or covered

Ground – Scatter food in the open or near cover

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