The house sparrow

David Chapman / 13 August 2013 ( 11 May 2017 )

Find out about the house sparrow's mating habits, nesting habits, behaviour and how to attract these sociable birds into the garden with nest boxes and strategic planting.

Passer Domesticus, literally 'sparrow of the house', has a long association with humans. The house sparrow, through its own volition, lives alongside us taking advantage of the close association but I think we also have much to gain from our, usually uninvited, house guests.

Look after vulnerable garden birds by making sure they are well fed during cold months. Buy a range of bird seed and feeders from Saga Garden Centre.

Nesting habits

The house sparrow likes to nest under cover and has a reputation for nesting in our roof spaces, gaining entrance through holes under the eaves, though they also nest in barns and outhouses. Their nests are often made from a variety of materials but always at the top of the list is grass or straw. 

Apart from straw and grass they use wool, hair and even man-made products to create their rather scruffy nests and occasionally they will utilise nests left by other birds such as those of swallows.

Find out where to position bird nest boxes

Mating habits

In spring time the male house sparrow has a lovely big black bib. This bib is the male’s badge of masculinity; the bigger it is the more likely he is to find a mate. Ironically when sparrows moult in the autumn they lose the bib, it is only when the grey feather tips wear away through the winter that the bib begins to show again. 

The sparrows with greater feather abrasion are the ones who develop their attractive plumage earlier in the spring so those that fight most get more opportunity to mate.

The fact that sparrows mate in the open led to the belief that they had many sexual partners. In fact it has been found that their level of promiscuity is about the same as that of our own! Moreover it seems that only established pairs will mate in the open but birds indulging in illicit couplings will do so in private.

This isn’t the only trait which the house sparrow shares with us. Just as we usually live in close proximity to others of our kind so do house sparrows, they are essentially sociable creatures. Taking the comparison with us one stage further sparrows even have arguments with their neighbours, but unlike us their arguments are entertaining. 

I have often looked on in amazement as a pair of male house sparrows has started a scrap about something and nothing. Before long the pair, with talons locked, takes to the air in a ball of feathers and even when they hit the patio they carry on squabbling!

Witness birds take flight and soar the skies of their natural habitat on a special interest bird watching holiday. Find out more here

House sparrow
A male house sparrow displaying to a female, it is clear that the abrasion of the grey feather tips leads to a greater area of black bib showing through..

Watching house sparrows

In mid-summer sparrows, like the rest of us, get a little over heated and they often take to the pond or bird bath for a dip. As with other activities they usually partake of bathing in large groups and have a good splash around. Another activity that is common in hot weather is dust-bathing, sparrows lie down in dry, sandy soil and flutter their wings, covering themselves in dust, and it is thought that this activity helps them to remove parasites from their feathers.

Sparrows have benefited from our generous nature. Where we put out food for birds they will readily accept our kind invitation though they don’t always wait for an invite. Grain that we put out for our chickens is a useful supplement to a sparrow’s diet and many is the time that I have sat outside a tea room and had sparrows popping down to pinch a bit of cake.  

The house sparrow can in places become quite numerous and very tame but its ability to be cheeky rather than rude and mischievous rather than wicked is a strategy which has brought the house sparrow closer to our hearts.

House sparrows have many traits which endear them to us. Consider their calls. A garden simply wouldn’t be the same without the chirruping of a sparrow, preferably a flock of them, in the background. I say this because for me sounds are very evocative and whenever I hear a sparrow I am subconsciously taken back to my childhood and the garden of my grandparents where sparrows were numerous.

House sparrows have suffered a serious decline throughout Britain, over the last thirty years their number has reduced dramatically with estimates of decline varying between 50% and 72% but all agree that this decline is more marked in urban areas. 

One key reason for this reduction in numbers must be a lack of suitable nest sites; modern houses do not have the same nooks and crannies under the eaves as older ones. Also the trend to have gardens paved over for car-parking has had an impact.

The BTO guide to identifying sparrows and other small brown birds

Attracting house sparrows into the garden

If you don’t have house sparrows living with you but you would like to encourage them then there are some things I would recommend:

1. Put up some nest boxes under the eaves of your house. These boxes should have a hole with diameter of about one and a half inches but critically there must be at least two or three of them because sparrows are naturally gregarious and nest in colonies. I did this in our house ten years ago and we quickly went from no pairs to about five and our garden is a more vibrant place as a result.

2. Put up some seed feeders close to the house.

3. Plant some dense shrubs around the garden.

From blue tits to goldfinches, find out how to spot and attract a whole wonder of garden birds in our guide to common garden birds.

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