Sparrows: Passeridae

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SPARROWS: Passeridae

SNOW FINCH (Montifringilla nivalis): SPECIES ACCOUNTS


Sparrows are small plumpish birds with short, powerful bills and short tails. They have different shades of brown and gray on their upperparts that is sometimes streaked lightly to heavily, and white or buff under parts that are streaked with black or brown. Adults are 4.5 to 7.0 inches (12.0 to 17.5 centimeters) long and weigh in the approximate range of 0.4 to 1.9 ounces (10 to 55 grams).


They are found worldwide except for Antarctica, north and west Australia, and the most northern parts of Eurasia.


Sparrows are found in open habitats with scattered trees such as arid steppes (treeless plains that is often semiarid and grass-covered) and woodlands.


Sparrows eat seeds of small plants including weeds, seeds from cultivated cereals, tree seeds, small berries, invertebrates such as insects (mostly for the young), food left out for animals and livestock, and human food wastes. Sparrows that forage in flocks often alternate feeding and resting, probably in order to digest hard seeds.


Sparrows are very social birds. They often are found in large flocks while searching for food and while roosting. Sparrows regularly dust themselves off in dirt and bathe in water, oftentimes with other sparrows. While roosting, the birds usually remain close together and keep in contact with each other through soft calls. Sparrows are not migratory birds, but do wander during the nonbreeding season in search of food. A few species that live in cold, high-latitude and high-altitude climates regularly migrate to milder climates in the winter.

Males usually call out to females at nest sites. Their territory is only the nearby area around a nest. The usually monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus; having one mate) breeding pair builds a domed-over nest with a side entrance. Nests are sometimes built close to other nests but others are more scattered about, with space between each depending on the number of good nesting sites. Nests are made with grasses and rootlets lined with fine grasses and long hair, often on the ground. Females lay four to six eggs that vary in color and shape. Several broods (young birds that are born and raised together) are possible each year for most species. Both parents take part in incubating (sitting on and warming) the eggs and taking care of the young. Young are born with down, but feathers develop quickly. The fledgling period (time necessary for young bird to grow feathers necessary to fly) is twelve to twenty days. The breeding pair keeps the nest throughout the year.


People sometimes consider sparrows as pests when seeds of cultivated grains are eaten by the birds in large amounts. Otherwise, sparrows and people do not have a significant relationship.


About one hundred house sparrows were introduced into Brooklyn, New York, from Europe from the autumn of 1851 into the spring of 1852. The species quickly moved throughout the eastern United States and Canada.


Sparrows are not under any threat, however the house sparrow in western Europe has declined in large numbers.


Physical characteristics: House sparrows are short and stocky birds with very short legs and thick bills. Male house sparrows have a gray crown (top part of head) and cheeks edged with chestnut, a chestnut nape (back part of neck), a black bill, and a usually small (but sometimes larger) black bib (area under bill, just above the breast) with a white moustache-like area below. They also have a white wing-bar, buff-brown back and black-streaked wings, pale gray under parts, and a gray rump and tail. Females are colored a drab brown overall with a dusky stripe below buff-colored eye brows, blackish streaked buff-brown upperparts, a dusky bill with a yellowish base that reaches to the lower mandible (lower part of bill), a white wing bar, and brownish gray under parts. Juveniles are similar to females but have browner upperparts, buffier under parts, and a pinkish bill. Adults are 5.5 to 6.3 inches (14 to 16 centimeters) long and weigh between 0.7 and 1.4 ounces (20 and 40 grams). Their wingspan is 9.5 to 10.0 inches (24.1 to 25.4 centimeters) long.

Geographic range: House sparrows are found in north Africa and Eurasia, excluding the most northern regions and the area from Japan west to Thailand. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, they were introduced to most of the rest of the human-inhabited world.

Habitat: House sparrows inhabit all areas throughout the world that are inhabited by humans. They often breed and winter in towns, cities, and farmlands. The bird is not usually found in woodlands and forests that have dense foliage.

Diet: They eat seeds (especially weed seeds), household scraps, insects, caterpillars, grains, and fruits, mostly from the ground around trees and shrubs. Most of their food comes from livestock feed. Young are fed small invertebrates (animals without a backbone).

Behavior and reproduction: House sparrows are aggressive and noisy birds. They generally do not migrate, but stay in one area throughout the year in small colonies (groups of birds that live together and are dependent on each other). They prefer to live around humans. Their song is a twittering series of cheeps or chirrups. The birds sing year-round, although less often on the hottest, coldest, and rainiest days. Females sing most frequently when they are without a mate. During breeding season, they join in pairs, but otherwise are found in family groups and flocks. They like to build nests in holes within buildings and trees, but also will build free-standing domed nests on tree branches. Sometimes they take nests away from other bird species. Females may lay up to five clutches (group of eggs hatched together) of eggs each year, but two to three are average. One clutch is two to five eggs. The incubation period (time to sit on eggs before they hatch) is ten to fourteen days, and the fledgling period is fourteen to sixteen days. Both sexes are involved in breeding activities, but females do more of the brooding. Both parents fed regurgitated (partially digested) food to the young.

House sparrows and people: People sometimes consider house sparrows pests when they feed too much on cereal grains being raised by farmers.

Conservation status: House sparrows are not threatened, but have seen major decreases in their numbers in western Europe at the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century. ∎

SNOW FINCH (Montifringilla nivalis): SPECIES ACCOUNTS

Physical characteristics: Snow finches are large, plumpish finch-like birds with a blue-gray head, brownish body, and white colorings that are visible while flying (on wings nearest the body and on tail except for dark brown bar that goes down the middle and dark brown spots across the ends). Males and females look similar, with females being paler and less white on the wings. Adults are 6.7 to 6.9 inches (17.0 to 17.5 centimeters) long and weigh between 28 and 54 centimeters).

Geographic range: They are found only on mountains over 6,600 feet (2,000 meters) in Europe and Asia.

Habitat: They are found in areas of barren, rocky ground and mountains at elevations from 6,600 to 11,500 feet (2,000 to 3,500 meters). They are sometimes found near buildings that are located within these mountainous areas.

Diet: Their diet consists of grains during the winter, but will eat invertebrates during other seasons. Often, snow finches feed on seeds blown onto high snowfields. They also eat on scraps tossed out from human settlements. Young are fed only animal food.

Behavior and reproduction: Snow finches are very social birds, often forming wandering groups and large flocks outside the breeding season. They spend most of their time on the ground hopping around with their wings folded. During the breeding season, they form loose colonies of up to six pairs. They build nests in rock crevices or holes in buildings. Nests are often built where trees are no longer found. They fill the crevice or hole with grasses and moss and line it with feathers. Females lay three to four eggs. The incubation period is thirteen to fourteen days, and the fledgling period is twenty to twenty-one days. Two clutches are possible each year. Both parents help to fed and take care of the young.

Snow finches and people: There is no known significant relationship between people and snow finches.

Conservation status: Snow finches are considered common. ∎



del Hoyo, Josep, Andrew Elliott, Jordi Sargatal, Jose Cabot, et al., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions, 1992.

Dickinson, Edward C., ed. The Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World, 3rd ed. Princeton, NJ and Oxford, U.K.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Forshaw, Joseph, ed. Encyclopedia of Birds, 2nd ed. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1998.

Harrison, Colin James Oliver. Birds of the World. London and New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1993.

Perrins, Christopher M., and Alex L. A. Middleton, eds. The Encyclopedia of Birds. New York: Facts on File, 1985.

Web sites:

"House Sparrow. Passer domesticus." U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior. (accessed on July 20, 2004).

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Sparrows: Passeridae

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