Identification

These are familiar little birds, commonly seen flocking in areas of human habitation. Both sexes have brown backs, with dark streaks, and grey underparts. Males can easily be distinguished from females by their facial markings, with a grey crown, chestnut sides and black around the bill, extending down into a black bib. Females are generally much paler all over and lack the facial markings. House sparrows are highly vocal, chirping and chattering a wide range of different sounds.

Size

14-16cm (5 ½-6 1/2in) long.

Distribution

House sparrows are residents of the UK, found pretty much anywhere that there is human habitation. They are now believed to be the most widespread bird species in the world.

Status

Although still fairly common, house sparrow populations have decreased by over 60 percent in the last 25 years. This steep decline has led to their classification as a red-listed species of high conservation concern. Declines are thought to be caused by a loss of habitat and a loss of food supply, mostly a result of the intensification of agriculture. An important factor in the reduction of food supply has been the sealing of farm buildings, which reduced the opportunities that sparrows have to feed on grain and animal feeds. Capture, damage or destruction of a house sparrow or its nest is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Habitat preference

House sparrows prefer areas close to man, which provide the richest environments for foraging and nesting. They can be found in almost any urban or rural setting where there is human habitation. They are less common in upland areas, particularly during the winter.

Where to find them in the garden

Nesting sparrows could be present in holes in buildings or trees. Otherwise look for them harassing other small birds at the bird feeder, or chirping away in the trees, on the ground, or anywhere that there might be something to eat.

Role in the garden

Sparrows can be a nuisance to other small birds, as they are an aggressive species that tend to dominate an area. Males will vigorously defend their nests, a behaviour which has an effect on their ability to attract females. House sparrows feed mainly on seeds, but young birds are fed on insects, and adult birds may also supplement their diet with these. An important part of many house sparrows' diets are scraps and bird food from feeders and bird tables.

Sparrows are preyed on by birds of prey such as sparrowhawks and tawny owls, providing a valuable food source for these species and perhaps enticing them into gardens.