Chances are you have seen these little brown birds everywhere. From your backyard feeders, to the grocery store parking lot, to nesting in the storefront letters outside shopping malls, house sparrows are everywhere. In fact, they are not just residents of the U.S. but nearly every other continent on earth! Let’s learn some facts about house sparrows and what makes them so adaptable.
Facts About House Sparrows
The House Sparrow may be small in size but it’s absolutely gargantuan in terms of population and world dispersal. The House Sparrow, or Passer domesticus, is adaptable and can live in urban and rural settings.
Let’s dive into more fun facts.
1. House Sparrows are the most widely distributed wild bird in the world
House Sparrows can be found on every continent except for Antarctica! This makes the species the most widely distributed wild bird species in the world. While the House Sparrow is native to most of Europe, the Mediterranean, and a large portion of Asia, they either intentionally or accidentally been introduced to North and South America, Africa and Australia.
2. House Sparrows entered the United States to combat a pest
While the House Sparrow is now an extremely common species found in American neighborhoods, it didn’t exist here until 1851. Trees in New York City were heavily infested with linden moth caterpillars in the early 1850’s.
House sparrows were imported from Europe and released in Brooklyn to help combat these pests, since the house sparrows eat them. It worked, but a little too well. House sparrows released in New York and other areas quickly multiplied and spread, and they reached most parts of the country within 50 years.
The house sparrow is an invasive species in the United States. They have become such a problem that they are actually one of 2 species of birds in the United States that you are legally allowed to trap and kill/euthanize, the other being the European starling.
3. House Sparrows have a life expectancy of 4-5 years in the wild and up to 12 years in captivity
On average a house sparrow lives about five years in the wild but has been documented to live twice as long when in captivity. But some do make it to a ripe old age in the wild. The oldest recorded house sparrows was 15 years old and found in Texas.
4. The House Sparrow isn’t related to other American sparrows
As we mentioned above, these sparrows are originally from Europe. So they aren’t related to other North American sparrows, which is why you may notice their different shape. House sparrows tend to be “chunkier” than native sparrows, with a larger and more rounded head, shorter tail, fuller chest and stocky build.
5. Males and females have different plumage
Breeding males have a black bill, and black around their eyes, under their bill and in a rounded “bib” on their chest. Their belly and top of the head is gray, with white cheeks and chestnut brown neck and wings with black flecks. Non-breeding males look similar but with some yellow on their beak and less black on the chest.
Females are a plain light brown all over with grayish underparts and striped backs.
6. Larger black bibs can indicate older males
For birds that live in groups, knowing who’s highest in the pecking-order is important. One simple way to display this information while avoiding fights is through their feathers. Male House Sparrows with larger patches of black on their chest tend to be older and more dominant over males with smaller black patches.
7. House Sparrows are considered extremely social
These gregarious birds are considered extremely social and will form flocks with birds of any species. Sparrow nests are usually grouped together with other sparrows in big clumps and they will feed with other sparrows on the ground.
This bird species is reportedly so social that you may even be able to get them to feed out of your hand.
8. House sparrows have physical cues they use with each other to indicate dominance
Because they tend to live in these groups, House Sparrows have developed many cues they use with each other to indicate who is dominant and who is submissive. This can include tail flicking, crouching and spreading wings, lifting wigs up fully and puffing out all feathers and opening their beak.
Males are usually dominant over females during the winter months, but in the spring and summer the females will push back and become more assertive.
9. House Sparrows are omnivores and will eat just about anything
House Sparrows have a typical diet of seeds and small insects but they’ve also been known to eat dropped human food and food from the trash. You will often see them hanging around outdoor restaurants and cafe patios looking for dropped crumbs and french fries.
The exact diet of a House Sparrow depends mostly on its habitat. It can include crops such as corn, wheat, oats and sorghum, as well as wild food like grasses, ragweed and buckwheat. They will happily eat just about any seed offered at bird feeders like sunflower, milo and millet. House Sparrows can catch insects in the air and may hang around lights after dark waiting for bugs to gather.
10. House Sparrows spend a lot of time on the ground
These birds like to forage on the ground, whether they are looking for crumbs of human food or wild seeds. Unlike some birds that walk when on the ground, House Sparrows move around by hopping.
11. House Sparrows will often take dust baths
A dust bath is a social behavior of the House Sparrow that is done in groups on dusty and dry ground patches. This is a means to remove parasites or other harmful substances from their plumage, feathers, or skin.
They make the same movements as they would taking a water bath, only throwing dirt over themselves instead. Afterwards there is often a small dent left in the ground, and they may defend this spot and keep other sparrows from using it.
12. Man-made structures are a favorite for nesting
One adaptation that has made these sparrows at home in urban settings is that they actually prefer nesting in man-made structures. Eaves, ceiling ledges, traffic lights, gutters, barns, street lights, birdhouses, etc. They don’t seem to mind being in very close proximity to humans and will even nest in the signs outside of busy shopping centers.
13. House sparrows are closely associated with people and human activity
If you are out hiking in remote wooded areas or empty grasslands, you are less likely to run into House Sparrows. They tend to like to be near human activity in cities, towns, farms and suburban neighborhoods.
14. House sparrows sometimes displace other birds out of nest boxes
Unfortunately these birds can be quite aggressive if they decide they want to use your backyard birdhouse, even if another bird is already in there. They will invade and kick out bluebirds, wrens, tree swallows and others, pushing them out of the house and blocking them from coming back in.
They may even fight and injure the other bird. This is a big reason why they are viewed by many backyard bird lovers as a nuisance and undesirable. In fact, many people downright hate these birds and with good reason.
15. There are 12 subspecies around the world
Currently there are at least 12 separate subspecies recognized, with slight variations in size and appearance occur in different geographic areas.