Things you probably didn’t know about sparrows
Whether you have grown up at the countryside or in the city, a sparrow was probably one of the first birds you saw
House sparrows are very rarely found far from human settlements. Their lives have been connected with people for a very long time, probably even several thousand years! Their association with humans is so strong, that it’s even reflected in their name – ‘domesticus’ means ‘home’, ‘domestic’. Although house sparrows originally come from Eurasia, right now they can be found all over the world – wherever there are people, there are also sparrows. They were intentionally or accidentally introduced into all continents apart from Antarctica.
Things you probably didn’t know about sparrows:
- There are 28 species of sparrows (Passer) in the world, and 3 of them can be found in Croatia! We have a house sparrow (Passer domesticus), a tree sparrow (Passer montanus) and a Spanish sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis). All of them live in close proximity of human settlements, but the house sparrows are most dependant on humans, because they nest almost solely in holes in buildings (the other species have different housing preferences). Although those three species look very similar, the males, especially during spring and summer, when their wear their breeding plumage, are easily distinguishable – if you know what to look at. This infographic will help you identify them:
- Sparrows are often ‘tenants’ in larger birds’ houses – they like to build their nests in the lower parts of nests of big birds like storks, herons, or crows.
- Sparrows are monogamous. They have only one mate for the entire life, but… Some of them cheat and occasionally copulate with other partners… Male sparrows tend to guard their partners fiercely to avoid being cuckolded.
- Observing sparrow’s behaviour can allow you to predict the weather! If the sparrows get quiet, take dust baths or just sit, puffed up, in the bushes, then it will probably rain soon. If they’re cheerful and loud, the weather is bound to be good!
- Sparrows are very social. They do everything together – they chirp together, bathe together, fly together… It doesn’t mean, however, that they are always friendly with each other! Both males and females fight for dominance and can be aggressive to each other.
- Adult sparrows eat mostly different cereals and scraps from the people’s kitchens, but their chicks need some animal protein to grow, and so their parents feed them insects and other small invertebrates.
Sparrows are one of the most numerous bird species on Earth, so they can’t be considered endangered, but their population is dwindling. During the last 40 years, their numbers in Europe has decreased by 247 million! Why is it happening? There are so many people in the world, so there should be also many sparrows… or shouldn’t there?
There are three main factors contributing to sparrows’ population decline:
- Many sparrows die or fall ill due to the pesticides or herbicides accumulated in crops.
- Modern building. Sealing the gaps and different ways of roof building eliminate the holes and places where sparrows can nest.
- Mowing lawns. Although sparrows mostly eat grain, small insects and other invertebrates are important part of their diet while they are raising their chicks. Mowing lawns eradicates the places where insects can live and feed.
Sparrows are not the only species which life is intertwined with ours. There are numerous plants, birds and invertebrates who coevolved with humans. They found their niches – their places in the ecosystem – in spaces created by people. When asked about wildlife conservation measures, most of us would probably mention a nature reserve or a national park. But protecting wildlife is not always about leaving it alone. For example, a beautiful flower, Greater Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla grandis), can only grow if the cattle will eat some plants that would otherwise smother it. Many common flower species, like dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) or daisies (Bellis perennis) grow almost only on our lawns or on the sides of the roads – they became dependant on humans mowing the grass and therefore creating a perfect habitat for them to grow. Some raptors, for example harriers, hunt mostly in open areas, like fields. However, just like the sparrows, many of such species are endangered and their population is in decline. The threat here is not that people modify the environment – these animals and plants has adapted to this modified environment. They adapted to it so well, that often they cannot survive without it. So what is the problem? The problem is that within the last couple of decades, people drastically changed the way they operate. In many places, traditional farming has been abandoned and replaced by industrial farming. Humans invented toxic chemicals and introduced monocultures to increase their crops. They closed cows, pigs and chickens in cages to maximize the profits. Unfortunately, by doing so, not only we poison ourselves and sentence livestock to sad and painful lives, but we also eliminate the space for many, many different species.
It is worth to remember that, while many plants’ and animals’ survival depends on us, we are also dependent on other species. Sometimes the connection isn’t as obvious as it is, for example, with bees. In 1958, Chinese government decided to kill sparrows and other ‘pests’ like rats and insects. Rats and insects proved to be very difficult to eradicate, but millions of small birds were slaughtered. What was the outcome? China was plagued by incredibly high number of locusts and other plant-eating insects. As a result, as many as 45 million people died from starvation. Eventually, China petitioned to other countries to send them some sparrows to rebuild the population! Fortunately, it worked.
How can you help the sparrows and other human-dependent species?
- If you are a farmer, consider a more traditional approach. Leave bits of bushes and trees in between your fields – they are extremely important for wildlife! Use ecological ways of protecting your crop from pests – not only sparrows, but also bees and other pollinating insects will be grateful. Let your livestock roam freely, also in between trees (many flowers need a bit of shadow to grow, but they also need your cows to eat some of the bigger plants!)
- If you’re not a farmer, consider buying organic products. Our choices influence the producers and the law-makers. You can also sign petitions that aim to improve the situation and support NGOs working for environment and wildlife protection.
- If your house doesn’t have holes for sparrows to nest, you can hang birdhouses. Tree sparrows will use the ones you hang on a tree, but house sparrows would prefer if you hung it on the wall. But be careful: don’t place it too close to the window! Sparrows are very careful and they can abandon their nest if they will be disturbed by the movements behind the glass. The proper size of a birdhouse for sparrows is 34x15x15 cm, with the entry diameter of 32-33 mm.
- Try sowing a mix of grass and other plants and do not mow your lawn too often. If you let it grow for a bit longer, you will have beautiful flowers, you’ll invite many different insects to your garden, and young sparrows and other birds will have enough proteins to grow healthily.
- Did you notice that the hedges often seem to be chirping? 😉 Sparrows love to hide in the thick bushes. Do not cut them all out!
- If you have a cat, keep it at home. Research proved that many millions of birds, but also lizards and small mammals, are killed by cats every year. Predators are, of course, a part of every ecosystem, but in natural ecosystems they are not helped by being fed and cured by humans, therefore there are less effective and there is less of them. Moreover, cats are considered to be an invasive species in most of their current range, so they were never a part of these particular environments. If it seems cruel to you to keep your cat at home, you can try teaching it to walk on a leash like a dog – some cats actually enjoy that! You should also provide it with some toys and ways to spend its energy and satisfy its need for hunting. If you let your cat roam freely, please sterilize it.
- Don’t destroy the nests of sparrows and other birds that nest on houses if they are making a mess. There are a lot of solutions to make birds and humans live together…
We celebrate World Sparrow Day! Go and find out which species of sparrow lives in your backyard 🙂
Written & drawn by: Alicja Maciejewska