House sparrow guide: species facts, how to identify, and how to put up a nestbox for them

The charismatic house sparrow is a familiar bird to many of us, despite its rapid decline over the last 20 years. Find out more about this species in our expert guide by the British Trust for Ornithology.

Male house sparrow. © Edmund Fellowes/BTO

Noisy and gregarious, a flock of house sparrows is sure to warm anyone’s heart, especially in the light of their long-term decline. Learn about this little bird in our expert guide by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

Where are house sparrows found?

The native range of house sparrows is across Europe, parts of Asia and northern Africa. It has also been introduced to a number of countries in the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania.

Advertisement

It is found across most of the UK, but is absent from parts of the Scottish Highlands.

A female house sparrow perched on a wire fence. © Gary Chalker/Getty
A female house sparrow perched on a wire fence. © Gary Chalker/Getty

What is the scientific name of the house sparrow?

The scientific name of the house sparrow is Passer domesticus. 

In the UK, the only other resident member of the Passer genus is the tree sparrow, Passer montanus.

Tree sparrow. © Gary Chalker/Getty
Tree sparrow. © Gary Chalker/Getty

Although the dunnock is sometimes referred to as a hedge sparrow, it is actually part of the Prunella genus.


How to identify house sparrows

Male house sparrows have a black bib, black face mask and a chestnut brown head with a grey crown. They also have a broad white wing bar.

Male house sparrow. © Trevor Parsons
Male house sparrow. © Trevor Parsons

Female and juvenile house sparrows are dusky brown with greyish-white undersides and dull-brown, but streaked backs. They lack the black bib of the male and have pale brown crowns with a buff line above the eye.

Female house sparrow. © Liz Cutting/BTO
Female house sparrow perched on bramble. © Liz Cutting/BTO

Please note that external videos may contain ads:

Identifying sparrows and similar-looking birds. © BTO


What do house sparrows sound like?

The loud, chirping calls of house sparrows are very distinctive and can carry a long way.


What do house sparrows eat?

House sparrows mainly eat seeds, but also shoots, berries and scraps. Nestlings are fed on invertebrates.


What predators do house sparrows have in gardens?

As with many garden birds, the house sparrow’s main predator is the sparrowhawk. However, house sparrows have some useful adaptations in order to evade sparrowhawks.

Sparrowhawks feed on mainly on small birds. © Alan Tunnicliffe Photography/Getty
Sparrowhawks feed on mainly on small birds. © Alan Tunnicliffe Photography/Getty

House sparrows put on more fat in places where there are no sparrowhawks. So where they need to escape from sparrowhawks, they stay lighter, more manoeuvrable and so are more vulnerable to starvation. Find out more about this study.

House sparrows are also predated by other birds, such as tawny owls.

Please note that external videos may contain ads:

Female tawny owl about to feed on a house sparrow. © BTO


How numerous are house sparrows?

The last population estimate of house sparrows was undertaken in 2016. It showed that there were 5.2 million pairs in Britain and 5.3 million in the UK.


How long do house sparrows live for?

Typically, house sparrows live for around three years. However, the current longevity for record for this species is 12 years and 12 days old.


When are house sparrows most frequently seen in gardens?

According to BTO Garden BirdWatch data, which has been collected since 1995, house sparrows are most frequently seen during June, in around 77% of gardens.

Average monthly maximum count data, which has been collected since 2003, has shown that the highest monthly counts tend to occur in August, with an average maximum monthly count of 6.7 birds per garden.


Are house sparrows increasing or declining in gardens?

House sparrows have declined in gardens since BTO Garden BirdWatch began. Although reasons behind this decline are not known, the availability of food and nest sites in urban areas is thought to be a significant contributing factor.

England’s house sparrow population fell by 70% between 1977 and 2016. A study that was led by ZSL’s Institute of Zoology in collaboration with RSPB and BTO monitored the house sparrow population in London. The study showed that 74% of the house sparrows tested carried Avian Malaria, which is the highest prevalence recorded in populations of wild birds in Northern Europe.


When do house sparrows nest?

House sparrows nest from April to August, and have up to three broods a year. The breeding behaviour of this species has been well studied over the years and recent DNA studies have shown that up to 15% of house sparrows are the result of copulations by both males and females with others’ partners.

Male house sparrow. © Gerard Soury/Getty
Male house sparrow. © Gerard Soury/Getty

Also, widowed female house sparrows have been known to destroy eggs and young of other house sparrow pairs in an attempt to force the male of that pair to desert their current partner.


Do house sparrows use nestboxes?

Yes. House sparrows require a standard, small hole fronted nestbox with an entrance hole of 32 mm. As house sparrows are colonial nesters, consider placing several boxes in close proximity.

Nestboxes are best facing north-east and are sheltered from the prevailing wind and rain. Avoid obvious sun traps, such as south-facing walls. The boxes don’t need to be positioned within cover. The box is best positioned between two and three metres off the ground or higher if you think there is a risk of disturbance.

Download plan for a house sparrow nestbox from the BTO website.


What can I do to help house sparrows in my garden?

Provide bird feeders filled with seed and put up nestboxes for them. Although house sparrows tend to bathe in dust rather than water, make sure you supply a source of clean water for them so that they can drink.

Also ensure that any bird feeders that you put up in your garden are cleaned and disinfected regularly in order to minimise the risk of the diseases that affect garden birds spreading.


The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is a UK charity that focuses on understanding birds and, in particular, how and why bird populations are changing. Our vision is of a world where people are inspired by birds and informed by science.

Find out more about the BTO’s Garden BirdWatch.

bto-logo-portrait
Advertisement

Main image: Male house sparrow. © Edmund Fellowes/BTO