The house sparrow (Passer domesticus) is a bird of the sparrow family Passeridae, found in most parts of the world. A small bird, it has a typical length of 16 centimetres (6.3 inches) and a mass of 24–39.5 grams (0.85–1.39 ounces). Females and young birds are coloured pale brown and grey, and males have brighter black, white, and brown markings. One of about 25 species in the genus Passer, the house sparrow is native to most of Europe, the Mediterranean region, and much of Asia. Its intentional or accidental introductions to many regions, including parts of Australia, Africa, and the Americas, make it the most widely distributed wild bird.
The house sparrow is strongly associated with human habitations, and can live in urban or rural settings. Though found in widely varied habitats and climates, it typically avoids extensive woodlands, grasslands, and deserts away from human development. It feeds mostly on the seeds of grains and weeds, but it is an opportunistic eater and commonly eats insects and many other foods. Its predators include domestic cats, hawks, owls, and many other predatory birds and mammals.
Because of its numbers, ubiquity and association with human settlements, the house sparrow is culturally prominent. It is extensively, and usually unsuccessfully, persecuted as an agricultural pest, but it has also often been kept as a pet as well as being a food item and a symbol of lust and sexual potency, as well as of commonness and vulgarity. Though it is widespread and abundant, its numbers have declined in some areas. The animal’s conservation status is listed as least concern on the IUCN Red List.
Measurements and shape
The house sparrow is typically about 16 cm (6.3 in) long, ranging from 14 to 18 cm (5.5 to 7.1 in). It is a compact bird with a full chest and a large rounded head. Its bill is stout and conical with a culmen length of 1.1–1.5 cm (0.43–0.59 in), strongly built as an adaptation for eating seeds. Its tail is short, at 5.2–6.5 cm (2.0–2.6 in) long. The wing chord is 6.7–8.9 cm (2.6–3.5 in), and thetarsus is 1.6–2.5 cm (0.63–0.98 in). In mass, the house sparrow ranges from 24 to 39.5 g (0.85 to 1.39 oz). Females usually are slightly smaller than males. The median mass on the European continent for both sexes is about 30 g (1.1 oz), and in more southerly subspecies is around 26 g (0.92 oz). Younger birds are smaller, males are larger during the winter, and females are larger during the breeding season. Birds at higher latitudes, colder climates, and sometimes higher altitudes are larger (under Bergmann’s rule), both between and within subspecies.
Most house sparrow vocalisations are variations on its short and incessant chirping call. Transcribed as chirrup, tschilp, or philip, this note is made as a contact call by flocking or resting birds, or by males to proclaim nest ownership and invite pairing. In the breeding season the male gives this call repetitively, with emphasis and speed but not much rhythm, forming what is described either as a song or an “ecstatic call” similar to a song.
Aggressive males give a trilled version of their call, transcribed as “chur-chur-r-r-it-it-it-it“. This call is also used by females in the breeding season, to establish dominance over males while displacing them to feed young or incubate eggs. House sparrows give a nasal alarm call, the basic sound of which is transcribed as quer, and a shrill chree call in great distress. Another vocalisation is the “appeasement call”, a softquee given to inhibit aggression, usually given between birds of a mated pair. These vocalisations are not unique to the house sparrow, but are shared, with small variations, by all sparrows.
Distribution and habitat
The house sparrow originated in the Middle East and spread, along with agriculture, to most of Eurasia and parts of North Africa. Since the mid-nineteenth century, it has reached most of the world, chiefly due to deliberate introductions, but also through natural and shipborne dispersal. Its introduced range encompasses most of North America, Central America, southern South America, southern Africa, part of West Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and islands throughout the world. It has greatly extended its range in northern Eurasia since the 1850s, and continues to do so, as was shown by the colonisations around 1990 of Iceland and Rishiri Island, Japan. The extent of its range makes it the most widely distributed wild bird on the planet.
The house sparrow has become highly successful in most parts of the world where it has been introduced. This is mostly due to its early adaptation to living with humans, and its adaptability to a wide range of conditions. Other factors may include its robust immune response, compared to the Eurasian tree sparrow. Where introduced, it can extend its range quickly, sometimes at a rate of over 230 km (140 mi) per year. In many parts of the world it has been characterised as a pest, and poses a threat to native birds. A few introductions have died out or been of limited success, such as those to Greenland and Cape Verde.
The house sparrow was first introduced to Australia in 1863 at Melbourne and is common throughout the eastern part of the continent, but has been prevented from establishing itself in Western Australia, where every house sparrow found in the state is killed. House sparrows were introduced in New Zealand in 1859, and from there reached many of the Pacific islands, including Hawaii.]
The house sparrow is closely associated with human habitation and cultivation. It is not an obligate commensal of humans as some have suggested: Central Asian house sparrows usually breed away from humans in open country, and birds elsewhere are occasionally found away from humans. The only terrestrial habitats that the house sparrow does not inhabit are dense forest and tundra. Well adapted to living around humans, it frequently lives and even breeds indoors, especially in factories, warehouses and zoos. It has been recorded breeding in an English coal mine 640 m (2,100 ft) below ground,