House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
Prepared by Paul Nicholson, February 2023
With an estimated worldwide population of more than one billion, House Sparrows are the most common wild bird in the world. The species is native to Eurasia but it’s an invasive species in North America. All photos by Paul Nicholson
The House Sparrow is the most abundant wild bird species on our planet. In a study led by Corey Callaghan of the University of New South Wales in Australia and based on global eBird data, it was estimated that there are more than one billion House Sparrows worldwide. There are populations on all continents except Antarctica. The peer reviewed research was published in 2021 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
It therefore comes as no surprise that there are many thousands of House Sparrows here in London, Ontario. They are easy to see and hear because they are one of the few species that don’t migrate, and this is a synanthropic species, meaning that it thrives in human-built environments such as cities, towns, and farmyards.
The taxonomic classification of the House Sparrow has changed over the years. Many sources (especially pre-1970) classify the House Sparrow as part of the Ploceidae family of Weaver Finches (instead of Sparrows). However, according to Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy, which is based on DNA studies, the House Sparrow is an "Old World sparrow" ("true" sparrow) and member of the family Passeridae. Weaver finches are considered by some sources to be a subgroup of this family. Other sources consider the House Sparrow to belong to a separate family, Estrildidae. "New World sparrows" include the Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow and Chipping Sparrow as members of the family Emberizidae. House Finches and Goldfinches are sometimes included in the family Fringillidae ("true finches").
Taxonomically, this bird is in the family Passeridae which is also know as Old World sparrows or “true sparrows.” (Other sparrows found in Ontario are in the family Passerellidae, or New World sparrows.) The House Sparrow is not a true sparrow but is actually a member of the weaver finch family.
House Sparrows, like European Starlings, were introduced to North America in the 19th century, likely by Eugene Schieffelin, a New York City-based amateur ornithologist.
While House Sparrows match the “little brown job” description well, at about 16 cm in length, this species is a bit larger than most New World sparrows. They also have a chunkier build with a relatively large and rounded head. The bird’s conical beak is also large.
Males have a grey crown with a striking black mask and chin. There is a reddish look to the male’s back. Females’ colours are mousier.
The male House Sparrow is often very vocal. Its call is a cheep or a chirp. Females are less vocal. Listen to the House Sparrow’s vocalization below:
This is a female House Sparrow. It is more or less the same size and shape of the male, however the plumage is a paler brown and grey. Differences in plumages between the sexes is known as dimorphism.
House Sparrows are cavity nesters, so they seek out holes or other spaces in buildings, streetlights, or signs. They will also compete aggressively for nest boxes. The nests will consist of grasses and other vegetation, with feathers and string that they may find.
The large conical bill gives us an excellent clue that main part of the House Sparrow’s diet is seeds and grains. They will supplement their diet opportunistically with insects.
House Sparrows are ubiquitous in London. For example, it is almost impossible to be downtown and not see and hear these birds. They are also social birds, so you will most often see them in flocks.
Like all wild birds, the House Sparrow can be harmed by people feeding them improperly, such as feeding bread. Birds should only be provided with foods they can digest, in small quantities and appropriate environments. Learn more
The House Sparrow is considered a non-native invasive avian species in North America with a low conservation concern. Although the population across North America appear to have declined somewhat over the past decades because of farming intensification, there remain robust populations in London and elsewhere in Canada and the U.S.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says “House Sparrows are fierce competitors for nest holes in trees and nest boxes. These are valuable commodities for birds that require them for breeding and unfortunately, non-native House Sparrows squeeze out some of our native cavity-nesting species.”
Even though the House Sparrow is a non-native invasive species, we should still avoid use of pesticides, reduce our ecological footprint as much as possible, and participate in citizen science initiatives such as recording bird sightings in eBird.