In praise of 'the brown budgie'

House sparrow by Fergus Gill/2020VISION

Sparrows are some of our most familiar birds, but their lives aren't as 'everyday' as they might seem, as our volunteer David Merry explains.

In the present sunny weather, the surge of spring is underway and a loud chorus of birdsong fills the house. A large quarrel of house sparrows has been visiting the garden; foraging on the ground, in the hedges and on the feeder. Their distinctive, perky, loud chirps and churrs have filled the garden with a flurry of pugnacious commotion. 

It’s a treat to watch them, especially when you see them in the birdbath with individuals waiting around the edge of the bowl for their turn. Then after much animated activity, they perch together and regail us with prolonged and very loud communal chirping. Sparrows; so full of bustling life.

A female house sparrow singing loudly as she perches on a twig

Female house sparrow by Amy Lewis

Thinking back to my childhood home in the 1960s, these wonderful little birds were always present and taken for granted. We lived in a terraced house with old fashioned eaves, and sparrows would nest there; their echoing calls filling our back bedroom from first light. The Liverpudlian nickname for these birds - ‘Brown Budgie’ - sums up our familiarity with Passer domesticus.

I have discovered that male sparrows, with large dark bibs or badges in their chest plumage, have an advantage in sexual selection contests and dominance of the pecking order of a colony. It’s not clear if birds with larger badges are more fertile or have better genes. However, it has been observed that large badge males are less successful as parents. Sparrows with small badges were found to be better fathers to the vulnerable young, providing them with more feeds.

This bird that’s followed humankind from our early history has left its mark from classical times to the present in noteworthy ways. The ancient Greeks thought the sparrow was sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and the Romans also followed this tradition with the goddess Venus.

John Donne thought the sparrow ‘neglects his life for love’, and Yeats in the 20th Century connects the modest sparrow to the ‘Sorrow of Love.’     

The sparrow makes a notable entrée in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in the shape of the lecherous Summoner. Whom, while romancing a lady, ‘Kissed her sweetly, chirping like a sparrow’. Shakespeare again sees the bird as lecherous. One puritanical character warns: ‘Sparrows must not build in this houses eaves because they are lecherous’ and will bring an uncertain future to the household.

A male house sparrow resting on a brick wall covered in lichen

Male house sparrow by Margaret Holland

Do sparrows deserve this reputation? There are any number of studies into the sex life of the humble sparrow. In general, most investigators find a low frequency of 15 to 20 per cent of extra pair mating. On the whole sparrows are monogamous, “With males guarding their mates, and bigamy is checked by feisty females”. No species with such vitality deserves to be extinct. Indeed, the sparrow has conquered the world and can be found in all four continents.

The more I find out about sparrows, the more I see the traits we share with them. Like us they can be aggressive over food sources and I’ve seen them take on larger birds. But mostly they pick fights with each other, with female sparrows always coming out on top. 

There are displays of altruism too. Whenever a sparrow finds food he calls out to the flock. This action between ‘flock mates’ shows how interconnected sparrow colonies are, which mirrors our complex family lives. Like us, sparrows are an opportunistic and highly adaptable species, but face any number of difficulties connected to climate change.

Unfortunately, for all their tenacity, sparrow populations are falling alarmingly in the UK. In London, sparrows are now considered a rare bird, and for all of us it is now red-listed as a threatened species. There are any number of reasons: pollution levels, unpredictable weather patterns, loss of food like insects along with the loss of nest sites and the presence of predators.  

We share our world with sparrows, so we must remember Shakespeare’s caution: ‘There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow’.

If we are part of the problem, we can be part of the solution too, with small actions like feeding the birds. Whatever the size of your garden, the wildlife-friendly garden is now the front line of conservation.