All About the Sparrow: The Intelligent Birds

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 11th November 2023

NameOld World sparrows, New World sparrows, house sparrow, song sparrowDietOmnivorous
Scientific namePasseridae, Passerellidae, Passer domesticus, Melospiza melodiaWeight13 to 53 grams (0.5 to 1.9 oz)
Pronunciationsper-rowLength11 to 25 centimeters (4.3 to 9.8 inches)
ClassificationAves, Passeriformes, & PasseriLocationWorldwide, except Antarctica

The Sparrow

Sparrow perched on a garden hedge | susandaniels via Getty Images

From their unique songs to their distinctive plumage and remarkable surviving adaptations, sparrows are among the world’s most famous birds! 

The hundreds of sparrow species have long been the subject of fascination of thousands of bird-watching enthusiasts, ornithologists, and researchers.

Thanks to their observations and studies, we are now overwhelmed by unbelievable details about these adorable birds! 

How else can we spread the love of sparrows if not by sharing the most interesting aspects of their lives?

Taxonomy and Classification

Two sparrows perched on a tree | Peter Vahlersvik via Getty Images

The term sparrow is used for almost 200 bird species, divided into two families:

  • Passerellidae – New World sparrows which are more closely related to Old World buntings and, until recently, were included in the Emberizidae family of Old World buntings
  • Passeridae – Old-world sparrows related to flycatchers, thrushes, and starlings

This term is also used for three other bird species that aren’t truly sparrows. 

The Java sparrow, for example, is, in fact, an estrildid finch, not a sparrow.

The same is valid for the Timor sparrow, which is closely related to the Java sparrow. 

The dunnock is often called a hedge sparrow, as it resembles a house sparrow, but it’s part of a different family called Prunellidae.

Considering how many sparrow species there are, we chose to focus our attention on two of the most common and abundant ones, as discussing 200 species would take us weeks! 

Therefore, today you’ll learn everything there is to know about house sparrows (Passer domesticus) and song sparrows (Melospiza melodia).

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Physical Characteristics

Gage Beasley's Tree Sparrow Bird Soft Stuffed Plush Toy
Gage Beasley’s Tree Sparrow Bird Soft Stuffed Plush Toy

House sparrows and song sparrows are very much alike in terms of appearance. 

They both have a body length of approximately 11–18 centimeters (4.3–7 inches) and a wingspan of 18–25 centimeters (7–9.8 inches). 

Their average weight is 30–32 grams (1–1.1 ounces), although some song sparrows can reach as much as 53 grams (1.9 ounces).

Both species have large, rounded heads and similar body shapes.

Song sparrows have thinner, longer tails, while house sparrows have wider, shorter tails.

Song sparrows typically have brown upperparts interspersed with dark streaks, while the undersides are white, featuring dark streaks as well as a dark brown spot on the breast. 

Their faces are grayish and exhibit brown streaks crossing each eye.

Their plumage differs depending on their geographic distribution. 

For instance, those living on the California coast have darker markings and are more grayish overall.

House sparrow (Passer domesticus) | Andrew_Howe via Getty Images

A house sparrow’s plumage is also a combination of gray and brownish shades. 

Nonetheless, one major difference between house sparrows and song sparrows is that the latter are monomorphic, whereas the former exhibit strong sexual dimorphism.

As such, male house sparrows have a distinctive grayish crown extending from the top of the bill toward the back, equipped with chestnut brown flankings on both sides of the crown. 

The bill is surrounded by black plumage, which extends up between the eyes and down to the throat. 

The undersides are white or grayish, while the upper parts are brown with black streaks.

The females, on the other hand, have duller plumage, being light brownish on the upper parts, which are striped with black and brown, and grayish on the undersides. 

Their cheeks are gray-brownish, and they exhibit a pale supercilium.

Habitat and Distribution

Male and female house sparrows perched on a branch | PaulFleet via Getty Images

The house sparrow is among the most widely distributed sparrow species. 

These birds’ origins can be traced back to the Middle East.

Over the years, they spread worldwide through agriculture and natural dispersal. 

Nowadays, house sparrows are found in North, South, and Central America, southern and western Africa, Eurasia, Australia, and New Zealand.

Song sparrows are found only in North America, being rare vagrants in Europe. 

A perched Song Sparrow strikes a handsome pose | Irving A Gaffney via Getty Images

They’re widely distributed across Canada and the United States, although some populations are found in Mexico as well.

Considering how widely distributed they are, we can conclude that house sparrows are more adaptable than song sparrows, as their range extends quite fast, and the birds are experts at thriving in various habitats, including close to human establishments.

Nevertheless, there are two habitats they do not like – dense forests and tundras.

And if they were to choose a preferred climate, house sparrows would go for drier conditions.

Song sparrows are known to prefer brushland and marshes but can also adapt well to areas inhabited by humans, including suburbs.

Some populations on the coast thrive in salt marshes.

Behavior and Social Structure

Fighting sparrows | Nataba via Getty Images

Like other birds, house, and song sparrows can become quite aggressive if they feel threatened. 

A scientist confirmed they can attack as many as 70 different birds while defending their nest holes! 

They aren’t afraid to harass other birds and may even end up killing them if the conflict isn’t solved!

However, there’s one thing that distinguishes the two species – house sparrows are primarily territorial with their nesting sites and are otherwise quite social and roost together, whereas song sparrows are more solitary and can be territorial in terms of feeding grounds as well.

Songs and Communication

What song is this sparrow singing? | KenCanning via Getty Images

House and song sparrows rely on their voices to communicate with their peers. 

Song sparrows are known for producing songs remarkably similar to the opening four notes of one of Beethoven’s symphonies!

Their songs are clear, precise, and highly diverse, especially for males, who are known to learn the songs of other birds living in the vicinity!

House sparrows produce short and frequent chirping sounds that are typically repeated more often and rapidly during the breeding season. 

Compared to song sparrows’ singing abilities, house sparrows aren’t as well developed (the song sparrow’s common name is an obvious indicator of this!).

Female house sparrows sing rarely, usually only when they lose a mate and are trying to find another one.

The calls, though, are used by both males and females.


Common house sparrow flying | agcreations via Getty Images

Song sparrows are most often seen flying in short and fluttering bursts, keeping their necks outstretched and their heads held high. 

Additionally, they’re renowned for pumping their tails downward mid-flight.

Song sparrows are seen flying only close to the ground. 

Nevertheless, they’re quite capable fliers, reaching speeds of 26–48 kmh (16–29.8 mph).

House sparrows have a flapping flight as well.

They can flap their wings up to 15 times per second and reach a speed of approximately 45.5 km/h (28.3 mph). 

On the ground, these gorgeous birds prefer hopping, unlike song sparrows, which would rather walk than hop.


Flock of sparrows | iiievgeniy via Getty Images

Song sparrows are year-round residents in the southern range, whereas northern populations are migratory and fly south to reach their wintering grounds.

Only two house sparrow subspecies are migratory – P. d. bactrianus and P. s. parkini.

The others remain in the same location for their whole lives, moving only a few kilometers outside their range.

Other subspecies migrate altitudinally; mountain house sparrows, for example, migrate to lower elevations when temperatures drop.

Diet and Feeding

Sparrow feeding on some well-deserved seeds | nitrub via Getty Images

House and song sparrows forage on the ground and eat primarily seeds and insects, although house sparrows are likely more opportunistic than song sparrows. 

The populations living close to urban areas are even known to scavenge garbage containers!

They gather close to restaurants and look for leftover food.

House and song sparrows rely on the following food sources in their natural habitats:

  • Seeds
  • Grains
  • Weeds
  • Berries
  • Insects like beetles and caterpillars
  • Arthropods
  • Mollusks
  • Crustaceans
  • Earthworms

Another proof that house sparrows are more opportunistic is that they’ve even been spotted hunting lizards and frogs!

Reproduction and Life Cycle

A Song Sparrow on the prairie, on the ground, feeds the little babies. | JackVandenHeuvel via Getty Images

Sparrows are highly territorial and aggressive in terms of defending their nesting sites. 

It has been suggested that male house sparrows can accept losing their mates, but not nesting sites!

The beginning of the sparrow breeding season depends on each species. House sparrows, for instance, begin mating earlier than song sparrows, in midwinter or early spring.

The latter, though, start their breeding season in April.

Another difference between the two species is that house sparrows prefer nesting in cavities, while song sparrows nest on the ground – another proof that all sparrows have evolved differently!

One thing is true for both, though – they are typically monogamous, and only rarely do males mate with other females. 

Furthermore, both species lay white-greenish eggs covered with reddish-brown spots. 

Song sparrow eggs | emer1940 via Getty Images

House sparrows lay 3–8 eggs, while song sparrows typically lay 4, although sometimes the number can vary between 2 and 6.

The incubation takes approximately 11–14 days, during which both parents care for the nestlings for roughly 10–17 days before they fledge. 

Song sparrows lay 2–3 clutches a year, while house sparrows can lay up to seven!

Young sparrows open their eyes 3–4 days after hatching.

House sparrows probably become independent more quickly than song sparrows, as they’re known to sustain themselves completely seven days after hatching.

Song sparrows registered a maximum lifespan of 11.3 years in the wild. 

House sparrows can live much longer, as they’re known to reach 20 years in the wild and 23 in captivity.

Ecological Role and Interactions

These three might be best sparrow friends | DigiPubFlickr via Getty Images

Sparrows play a significant role in their ecosystems, as they’re an essential species in maintaining and restoring the ecological balance. 

Besides this, some populations are considered excellent pest control agents and pollinators.

As mentioned, sparrows aren’t the friendliest birds when it comes to interacting with other species. 

They can become quite aggressive and attack other birds.

Considering how many predators they have, it’s no wonder they’ve evolved to protect themselves from any threats, including other birds.

Sparrows are regularly hunted and killed by cats, dogs, birds of prey, owls, corvids, snakes, squirrels, raccoons, and skunks, although the smaller predators typically hunt juveniles rather than adults.

Did you know that house sparrows are susceptible to human predation as well? 

They were once served as a food source in various countries and are still served in the Mediterranean.

Another essential thing to discuss here is brood parasitism, which, as you’ll soon see, is another explanation for why sparrows have evolved to be highly aggressive.

Sparrow nests before were prone to parasites | garnet71 via Getty Images

Some sparrow species are susceptible to having their nests parasitized. 

This means that particular bird species lay their eggs in sparrow nests and expect them to raise their young. 

This puts sparrow eggs and young at a higher risk of dying or even being killed by the parasite species. 

It is known that some parasite species check on the nests, and if the parasitized species has gotten rid of the egg, it destroys the nest and the eggs as revenge.

Song sparrows are parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds.

However, they’re already used to this situation and are quick to attack any cowbirds approaching their nests. 

House sparrows, on the other hand, have more advantages in this regard, as the entrances to their nesting holes are too small for parasite species to enter and lay their eggs.

Conservation Status and Threats

Small sparrows sit on a branch | Nataba via Getty Images

House and song sparrows have been assessed as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List, which is why we’ll share other sparrow species that are on the brink of extinction:

  • Saltmarsh sparrow (Ammospiza caudacuta) – Endangered, only 37,000–69,000 mature individuals left; the population is threatened by predation, flooding, habitat loss, and high precipitation during the breeding season.
  • Worthen’s sparrow (Spizella wortheni) – Endangered, only 250–999 mature individuals left; the population is threatened by habitat loss because of agriculture and grazing, the use of chemicals, and low reproductive success.
  • Sierra Madre sparrow (Xenospiza baileyi) – Endangered, 1,300–9,999 mature individuals left; the population is threatened by anthropogenic burning of habitat, conversion to agriculture, mycotoxin contamination, and nest failure because of heavy predation.

Although the house sparrow is assessed as Least Concern, it’s worth mentioning that some house sparrow populations are significantly declining.

The birds living in Great Britain, for instance, suffered a 90% population reduction.

Unique Adaptations and Survival Strategies

Two little Sparrows passing and receiving food directly into a young birds mouth. | petesphotography via Getty Images

Check out some unique adaptations sparrows rely on to survive in the wild:

  • Sparrows can be quite adaptable and survive in various habitats, making them almost immune to severe habitat changes. However, this is not valid for all species.
  • House sparrows have high salt tolerance, which is an excellent advantage, especially if they have to adapt to living in salt marshes; many birds cannot tolerate salt and may even die if large quantities are ingested.
  • The plumage of many sparrow species serves as ideal camouflage in the wild.
  • Many sparrow species have a specialized beak that has been adapted to help them feed on particular seed types.
  • House sparrows are known to survive without water for long periods. Instead, they hydrate by eating berries!
  • Old World sparrows have specialized elongated bills that help them find food faster.

Cultural Significance and Human Interactions

Sparrow resting on a beautiful tree | Nataba via Getty Images

Over the centuries, sparrows have appeared in a myriad of legends, folk tales, and cultural depictions. 

Today, it’s believed they symbolize joy, community, and simplicity.

In the past, however, they were symbols of the lower class, whereas other cultures regarded them as carriers of ancestral knowledge.

In Greek mythology, sparrows are depicted as symbols of love and associated with the goddess of love, Aphrodite. 

This inspired authors like Shakespeare and Chaucer to portray these gorgeous birds in their writings.

Conversely, European folklore mentions sparrows as death omens, and, in some parts of the world, this belief, or, better said, superstition, still stands. 

Did you know that one of the most common superstitions associated with sparrows is that they bring bad luck, especially if they’re killed? 

In other countries, it is thought that sparrows bring only happiness and rebirth.

Sparrows have long been associated with humans, although the relationship between them depends on each species. 

House sparrows, for example, are largely considered pests as they destroy crops and spread diseases. 

They also affect native birds negatively and are the source of large quantities of feces. 

Other species do not cause too much damage, as they do not reside close to human establishments.

Throughout the centuries, house sparrows were trapped and killed for traditional dishes, such as the sparrow pie, or sold due to their aphrodisiac properties.

Future Prospects and Research

Sparrow with spread wings and sunflower seed in its beak. | ROMAOSLO via Getty Images

Without a doubt, birds are one of nature’s most incredible creatures!

No wonder scientists are still discovering awe-inspiring facts about them!

Sparrows, especially house sparrows, have served as the subject of thousands of studies focused on outlining and understanding avian biology.

Despite the negative effect house sparrows have on crops and native bird populations, we cannot deny their importance in studying birds as well as in understanding avian parasite infestations and their impact on humans and pets. 


Among the almost 200 sparrow species, we’ve decided to discuss two of the most common ones: the house sparrow, which is an Old World sparrow and is distributed worldwide, and the song sparrow, which is a New World sparrow and lives only on the North American continent.

Although the two species look alike at first glance, they are, in fact, very different from many perspectives – plumage, behavior, habitat preferences, life expectancy, and ecological role.

While house sparrows are quite infamous because of the damage they cause in rural and urban areas, song sparrows are renowned for their remarkable songs!


How intelligent are sparrows?

It has been suggested that sparrow brains are unusually large, which may be an indicator of their intelligence.

Scientists also believe that sparrows learn from experience and even exhibit different personalities.

What are five facts about sparrows?

Here are five facts about sparrows:

  • One of the smallest Old World sparrow species is the chestnut sparrow, which measures 11.4 centimeters (4.5 inches) and weighs 13.4 grams (0.5 ounces).
  • Sparrows have a bone in their tongue called the preglossale, which makes their tongue stiff while holding seeds.
  • The great sparrow is the only Old World sparrow that breeds in solitary pairs, whereas all other species breed in loose colonies.
  • New World sparrows living in the neotropics do not exhibit a typical sparrow plumage. Instead, they have green, red, and yellow plumage patterns.
  • Old World sparrows are among the only passerine birds that care for their plumage through dust bathing, during which they literally roll around in dust. This is usually considered a social activity.


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