A history of declines. Once one of Britain’s commonest birds, sparrow numbers have crashed in recent years, with London alone losing three-quarters of its sparrows between 1994 and 2000. Declines in rural sparrow populations are thought to be a result of changing farming practices, particularly the loss of Winter stubble, though the exact reasons for the species collapse in urban areas are poorly understood and still, to this day, the subject of research.
Sparrow clubs. Throughout history, house sparrows were commonly viewed as a pest species in Britain. So much so that dedicated “sparrow clubs” were formed with the sole intent of dispatching as many birds as possible. From the mid-18th century, most parishes had sparrow clubs and bounties were paid for dead sparrows until the late 19th century when it was accepted that the control measures did not work. The reasons for these control measures centre on the perceived status of sparrows as a major pest of cereal crops.
Invasive Species. House sparrows have been successfully introduced to numerous countries around the world, including both North and South America, East and South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The first of these introductions took place in the USA where, in 1852, sparrows brought across from England were released in New York with the intention of controlling the number of damaging Linden moths. The sparrows had other ideas and quickly spread across the continent…
Infidelity. DNA research has shown that 15% of house sparrow offspring are the result of either the cock or hen birds mating with another partner, confirming the sparrow’s reputation for sexual infidelity. A study in 2016, however, hinted that cuckolded male sparrows stopped tending to their chicks – greatly reducing the chances of their rivals young successfully fledging.
Nest theft. Sparrows frequently take over the nests of house martins and swallows and, in a rather grim turn of events, often eject eggs or young birds already present in the nest. With the less dominant hirundines unable to stop them. In many parts of Europe, sparrows also nest in colonies in the base of white storks’ nests. This is thought to be because such nests are well-insulated and safe from predators.
Ringing recoveries. Though rightfully thought of as sedentary, British-ringed house sparrows have been recovered as far away as France and Belgium – showing that, despite reputation, the species does indeed move considerable distances. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that some of the birds seen in Britain may migrate from Scandinavia; although, by large, most sparrows do not move far from their place of birth.
Latin name. The house sparrows latin or ‘scientific’ name and its usual English name have a similar meaning: the Latin word passer, like the English word sparrow, is a term for small active birds, derived from a root word referring to speed. The Latin word domesticus means “belonging to the house”, and, like the species common name, is a reference to its close association with humans.
House Sparrows are capable of swimming underwater! Yes, its true. Even though these birds are not water birds, it has been observed that they can actually swim underwater to move from one place to the other. Apparently, this behaviour was first observed when a sparrow was caught in a trap positioned atop a water dish. The bird, obviously opposed to captivity, proceeding to dive into the water and swim from one part of the trap to another seeking escape. Which sadist would want to trap a sparrow and test this theory, however, is a little beyond me…
Visual dominance. Older male sparrows with large black patches on the body are thought to be dominant over males with small patches. The size of the black breast bib – the badge – and the bill colour of male birds change over the course of the year and is thought to relate to the individual’s testosterone levels. Due to the biological cost of producing the pigment necessary to alter their appearance, it is thought that only birds in peak physical condition can afford this – signalling their status as a suitable mate for any passing females.