Passer domesticus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Family: Passeriformes > Passeridae
Cheeping flocks of House Sparrow once tumbled from untidy nests and wallowed in urban dust baths. Now the species is in decline and has been on the UK Red List since 2002.
Colonial nesters, the male House Sparrow is resplendent with grey head and black bib, while the female and young are more uniformly brown. Very much associated with the dwellings of man whether urban or rural, House Sparrows enjoy a mixed diet, and in the summer will readily forage for insects in hedgerows and meadows providing they do not have to fly too far from their nests.
House Sparrows are found year round throughout Britain & Ireland, except for on the highest peaks. The species has declined in the UK since the mid-1970s, with losses most notable in the south and east.
Select a topic for more facts and statistics about the House Sparrow
House Sparrow identification is often straightforward. The following article may help when identifying House Sparrow.
Chaffinch is one of our most common and familiar birds, but young birds and females are harder to identify than the stunning males. In winter, Chaffinches are joined by their northern cousins, Brambling. How can you pick them out in the midst of Chaffinches?
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Listen to example recordings of the main vocalisations of House Sparrow, provided by xeno-canto contributors.
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Status and Trends
Population size and trends and patterns of distribution based on BTO surveys and atlases with data collected by BTO volunteers.
This species can be found on the following statutory and conservation listings and schedules.
CBC sample sizes did not allow monitoring of House Sparrows until 1976; previously, there had been many farmland plots with high populations that CBC volunteers could not properly quantify without better access to farm buildings and housing. CBC/BBS data indicate a rapid decline in abundance over the last 25 years, as does the BTO's Garden Bird Feeding Survey (Siriwardena et al. 2002, Robinson et al. 2005b). These results are supported by many other studies and anecdotal reports, and have generated considerable conservation concern (see Summers-Smith 2003). The overall national decline since the 1970s masks much heterogeneity by region and habitat, and population processes may be relatively fine-grained: overall, populations in rural areas had declined by 47% by 2000, and those in urban and suburban areas by about 60% (CBC and GBFS data: Robinson et al. 2005b). The BBS map of change in relative density between 1994-96 and 2007-09 indicates that the decline was strongest over that period in the London area and eastern Britain generally, while increases occurred in parts of western Britain. The current BBS data show significant increases in Scotland and Wales since 1995, although these are dwarfed by the earlier UK decline. A change in the listing criteria resulted in the admission of the species, green-listed until 2002, directly to the red list. There has been a decline across Europe since 1980 (PECBMS: PECBMS 2020a>). The European status of this species is no longer considered 'secure' (BirdLife International 2004).
The House Sparrow is among the most widespread species in Britain & Ireland, being found in c.90% of 10-km squares; it is absent only from exposed upland areas of northern Scotland. Abundance is generally higher in lowland areas, although densities are low in southeast England and East Anglia.
Occupied 10-km squares in UK
|No. occupied in breeding season||2757|
|% occupied in breeding season||91|
|No. occupied in winter||2695|
|% occupied in winter||89|
European Distribution Map
Breeding Season Habitats
|Most frequent in||Towns|
|Also common in||Villages|
Relative frequency by habitat
Both winter and breeding range have remained largely stable despite an extensive population decline since the 1970s.
Change in occupied 10-km squares in the UK
|% change in range in breeding season (1968–72 to 2008–11)||-3.3%|
|% change in range in winter (1981–84 to 2007–11)||+4.3%|
House Sparrow is recorded throughout the year on up to 40% of complete lists.
Information about movement and migration based on online bird portals (e.g. BirdTrack), Ringing schemes and tracking studies.
An overview of year-round movements for the whole of Europe can be seen on the EuroBirdPortal viewer.
Lifecycle and body size information about House Sparrow, including statistics on nesting, eggs and lifespan based on BTO ringing and nest recording data.
View number ringed each year in the Online Ringing Report
|Maximum Age from Ringing||12 years 0 months 12 days (set in 1978)|
|Typical Lifespan||3 years with breeding typically at 1 year|
|Juvenile Survival||0.489 (in first year)|
|Wing Length||Adults||77.1±2.4 | Range 73–81mm, N=15876|
|Juveniles||74.2±2.6 | Range 70-78mm, N=3221|
|Body Weight||Adults||27.3±3.88 | Range 24.2–30.7g, N=13060|
|Juveniles||26.6±2.391 | Range 22.8–30.6g, N=2491|
|Males||27.4±4.77 | Range 24.5–30.5g, N=7482|
|Females||27.2±2.17 | Range 24.0–31.0g, N=5513|
Feather measurements and photos on featherbase
|Field Codes||2-letter: HS | 5-letter code: HOUSP | Euring: 15910|
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Interpretation and scientific publications about House Sparrow from BTO scientists.
Causes of change
There is evidence that changes in survival rates due to lack of food resources, because of agricultural intensification, are the main driver of House Sparrow declines in farmland, although changes in breeding performance may also have played a role. Different processes have affected House Sparrows in towns, where breeding performance could be the most important driver of declines, although the evidence for the ecological causes is less clear.
Further information on causes of change
A temporary drop in first-year survival coincided with the period of steepest decline, but changes in breeding performance, especially reduced nest failure rates at the chick stage, appear to have driven a levelling-off in the long-term population trend (Freeman & Crick 2002). Over the period since 1968, brood size has decreased (see above) but there has also been a major decrease in nest failure rates at the egg and chick stages, so the number of fledglings per breeding attempt has shown a net increase. Further evidence for the role of changing survival in House Sparrow declines has been provided by Hole et al. (2002), who found no evidence of significant differences in most breeding-ecology parameters in declining and stable populations in a farm-scale comparison, while Siriwardena et al. (1999) found that national survival rates were lower during the period of decline in the CBC index. That survival, especially of adult birds, appeared to make the largest contribution to annual population change was also found by Robinson et al. (2014). Crick & Siriwardena (2002), using NRS data, showed that breeding performance per nesting attempt had increased and was positively correlated with population growth rate in the wider countryside (although there was no such correlation in gardens). Analysis of Garden BirdWatch data found higher seasonal peak counts, however, relative to pre-breeding numbers, in the north and west of Britain than in the east and south where population decline is strongest, thus indicating that breeding productivity is influencing population trends (Morrison et al. 2014).
There appear to be different processes affecting urban and agricultural populations. On farmland, changes in farming practices due to intensification of agriculture and the tidying of farmyards have reduced the seed available to farmland populations of House Sparrows during winter, which has resulted in a reduction in survival rates (Siriwardena et al. 1999, Chamberlain et al. 2007, Hole 2001), specifically of first-year birds (Crick et al. 2002). This is supported by a positive effect of supplementary seed in winter on farmland House Sparrow population trends in a landscape-scale experiment in East Anglia (Siriwardena et al. 2007), and a similar positive effect from the provision of areas of seed rich habitat on farms under agri-environment schemes in Northern Ireland (Coulhoun et al. 2017). House Sparrows have probably been deleteriously affected by the decrease in the amount of grain spilt around farm buildings and during the process of harvesting since the 1970s (O'Connor & Shrubb 1986). The move towards autumn-sowing of cereals has meant that cereal stubble has become much rarer, reducing food resources over winter, although Robinson et al. (2001) found no influence of spring-sown cereal on House Sparrow abundance in predominantly pastoral farmland. Conversely, breeding performance is worse where there is more spring cereal (Crick & Siriwardena 2002), although this may reflect geographical associations with areas where spring sowing remains widespread in the UK (the west and north) rather than direct effects of cropping.
Recent declines have been particularly severe in urban areas (Robinson et al. 2005b, Chamberlain et al. 2007). Increased predation by cats and Sparrowhawks, lack of nest sites, loss of food supplies, pollution and disease have all been cited as factors possibly depressing populations in towns (Crick et al. 2002), but supporting evidence for these is mixed. Within urban areas, Shaw et al. (2008) reviewed available evidence and hypothesised that House Sparrows have disappeared from more affluent areas, where changes to habitat structure such as planting of ornamental shrubs and increased demand for off-street parking is likely to reduce the amount of habitat available to House Sparrows and influenced foraging and predation risk. The conversion of private gardens to continuous housing has also had a negative effect on House Sparrow abundan
Vincent (2005) found that annual productivity among suburban and rural human habitation in Leicestershire was lower than that measured on farmland House Sparrows in Oxfordshire, the main cause of the difference being starvation of chicks. Low body masses at fledging, and consequently low post-fledging survival, were also recorded in Leicestershire. Although only a two-year study, Peach et al. (2008) measured reproductive success in a declining House Sparrow population along an urbanisation gradient in Leicester and also found that a year in which reproductive success was too low to sustain the population was characterised by lower chick survival and body mass at fledging (a predictor of post-fledging survival). However, there is no direct evidence that invertebrate food supplies have declined in these areas and variation in survival has not been investigated. Supplying mealworms for garden-nesting House Sparrows in Greater London substantially improved breeding success but did not increase nesting density (Peach et al. 2014, 2015). Supplying unlimited high energy seed throughout the year did not affect overwinter or survival or population size, suggesting that food availability was not currently a limiting factor for suburban sparrows (Peach et al. 2018).
Analysis of cross-colony abundance in Greater London found that numbers were higher in areas with more seed rich habitat and low levels of nitrogen dioxide air pollution, although further evidence about the effects of air pollution are needed to confirm whether it may have contributed to the decline (Peach et al. 2018). There is evidence, however, that avian malaria may have contributed to the decline in London, where infection was found at very high prevalence and survival rates were negatively correlated with infection rates (Dadam et al. 2019).
Negative correlations between indices of Sparrowhawk presence during its post-organochlorine increase and House Sparrow abundance from the Garden Bird Feeding Survey have been interpreted as evidence that increasing predation rates are depressing House Sparrow populations (Bell et al. 2010). However, more sophisticated analyses of large-scale and extensive national monitoring data provide no evidence that House Sparrow population declines were linked to increases in Sparrowhawks (Newson et al. 2010b).
Information about conservation actions
The main driver of the decline in farmland is believed to be a reduction of food resources on farms and in farmyards as a result of agricultural intensification, and therefore conservation actions and agri-environment policies which increase food availability are likely to benefit House Sparrows in rural areas. Research has confirmed positive effects from the provision of supplementary seed in winter (Siriwardena et al. 2007) and from the provision of areas of seed-rich habitat on farms (Colhoun et al. 2017).
The evidence relating to the declines in urban areas is less clear and further research is still needed. It may be that a number of different causes are affecting populations (see Causes of Change section, above). Therefore, a variety of different actions could be needed to reverse the declines, and actions that have increased numbers at some colonies will not necessarily be successful elsewhere. Providing supplementary food during winter may help declining populations (Hole et al. 2002) and actions to increase densities of invertebrates away from major roads may help improve breeding productivity (Peach et al. 2008). Actions to maintain and improve habitat in urban areas could also help, including the planting of native shrubs in gardens (Wilkinson 2010), retaining natural gardens and green spaces rather than paving, and ensuring suitable nesting locations are available (e.g. by providing nest boxes). Other possible causes which could have contributed to the decline include avian malaria (Dadam et al. 2009), for which encouraging improved garden feeder hygiene is important; and air pollution, which may be more difficult to resolve without wider scale policies.
Avian malaria linked to decline in London's House Sparrows
The once ubiquitous House Sparrow is now absent from many urban areas. New research suggests that malarial parasites may be involved in this decline.
Study highlights significant losses of European birds
This piece of research explores the question of measuring and detecting biodiversity change for European birds, which are well monitored in many European countries thanks to ongoing monitoring prog
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