This Visitor Guide is courtesy of the Farm Park Preservation Association

Birds at Norristown Farm Park

The House Sparrow

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of The Park Enthusiast.

House Sparrows

House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) are ubiquitous in the lower 48 states. I am sure you have all seen these small, stocky songbirds with big heads and strong bills. The adult weight ranges from 0.85 to 1.39 ounces and the adult length from 5.5 to 7.1 inches. The males display bold patterns of black, grays, and many shades of brown. Females are more muted in coloring.

Male house sparrow Female house sparrow

Although abundant here, House Sparrows are considered exotic birds, meaning they are not native to North America, but have established breeding populations here. They have done this so well, that they are now the most successful bird species in North America! House Sparrows are native to Africa, Eurasia and the Middle East. They were deliberately introduced here for the first time into New York from England (either to Central Park in 1850 or Brooklyn in 1851 depending on the source) and again and again at various dates. They have been redistributed within the country as well. Introduction and redistribution were done in part to bring in wildlife familiar to the European immigrants.

Sparrows on hand

Why were House Sparrows so successful? First, they tend to live near human communities and farms, which provide extra sources of food as well as cavities and niches for nesting. You won’t find them in uninhabited areas. House Sparrows eat a wide variety of foods including grains, seeds (from bird feeders and from the wild), and even fruits, vegetables and berries. They will eat insects and spiders while rearing their chicks. House Sparrows hop around while foraging. It is easy to attract them with food and sometimes you can get them to eat out of your hand. Various buildings and other structures provide nesting opportunities. Second, House Sparrows are aggressive and hardy. They do not migrate in North America, but may move from rural areas to urban or suburban areas in the winter to find food and shelter more easily.

sparrow egg sparrow nest with eggs

House sparrows begin nesting in late winter and early spring before migrating birds return, resulting in fewer nesting sites for the migrants. They usually lay eggs two or three times, sometimes four, during the breeding season, typically producing 3-6 eggs each time. The eggs are whitish with gray and brown spots. House Sparrows aggressively remove other birds’ clutches from established nests, including eastern bluebirds and tree swallows. They are a problem for the FPPA’s Bluebird Trail Project. The monitors remove their nests and eggs before they hatch.

sparrow nest sparrow hatchlings

House Sparrows are monogamous and form pairs for each breeding season, building nests from February to May. Nests are easy to identify because in addition to dried grass, they will use anything – string, plastic, paper, feathers. After the eggs are laid, both males and females incubate them for short periods (a few minutes). Incubation continues for 10-14 days. After the eggs hatch, both males and females feed the hatchlings by regurgitation of food. House Sparrows aggressively protect the area around their nests. In 1889, a scientist recorded House Sparrows attacking 70 different bird species while defending their nests.

Most House Sparrow songs are variations of a short, incessant chirping call that has been described as “chirrup”, “tschilp” and “philip”. This call is used by the male to attract a mate or by flocking or resting birds as a contact call.

House Sparrows are preyed upon by many hawks and owls, cats, dogs, raccoons, snakes and humans. They avoid their predators by foraging in groups with more eyes looking out for the predators.

House Sparrows do not glide. Instead their flight consists of continual flapping with about 15 wingbeats per second and averaging 28 mph.

sparrow flying