Sparrow's nest from John Gould's, Birds of Great Britain, 1862–73.
The house sparrows have at last stopped breeding for the year and, together with the finches, they have begun to flock for the autumn and winter. They spend their days now happily just eating and dust bathing, growing fat for the rigours of winter.
The pair that had been trying, for the fourth time, to rear a brood in the nesting box hanging from the eaves of the office finally made it: they and their young have all flown off to join the flock. Their nemeses have been the starlings which usually commandeer all the nesting boxes; they threw out the young sparrows just at the point when they had begun to get feathers. At the fourth attempt, I intervened, something I rarely do but I could not help but be sympathetic to the sheer persistence of the couple.
House sparrows are a rude, quarrelsome, noisy and gregarious lot, but I must confess to a sneaking admiration and fondness for these birds. Like the Norway rat and the house mouse, they have followed Europeans wherever they have settled and made most of the world their domain, often to the detriment of indigenous species.
They seem to prefer the company of Homo sapiens and have moved along with us as we have developed, built shelters and cultivated crops, something which their scientific name, Passer domesticus, reveals. Sparrow, their common name, is much the same in every European language, being variations of the old Teutonic sparwa, from sper ... to quiver.
Formerly classed as a finch, that is a seed eater, they are now considered to belong to the weaver family of birds. Weavers are all gregarious and often live together in trees. Where the house sparrow builds a bulky rough domed nest, its most highly evolved relatives weave nests of superlative workmanship and produce the most spectacular of all avian architecture. On the outskirts of villages in Africa and southern Asia, a tree bearing up to a hundred weaver finch nests is, I am told, no uncommon sight.
Here on the farm, they usually build their nests in the willow trees which leaves them at the risk of storms. There is often so much activity around their large nests that I have often wondered if there is a communal effort in rearing the young, a characteristic of the weaver family of birds. The ornithologist, W.H.Oliver thought that the sparrow’s broods could, in favourable conditions, succeed each other so quickly that all but the first laid eggs were partly incubated by the succession of young sparrows.
After the winter, around September, the males with their conspicuous black bibs and face masks establish their territories. The male spends about a week building the nest, wonderfully lined with feathers, into which he tries to lure a female. Not only does he build the nest unaided but also does most of the brooding in daylight hours. Both birds work together to feed the young.
Though the food of the nestling sparrow for the first week of its existence is almost entirely insects, the adult is decidedly omnivorous. Insects form a large part of the diet in certain localities and at certain seasons but at other times grain is the principal food taken. Flower buds, leaf buds, young fruits, ripe fleshy fruits, particularly cherries, grapes and peaches, form a portion of its food. They have been observed sipping the nectar from the flowers of pohutakawa and the New Zealand flax and I have watched Tuis give them a thorough thrashing for trespassing on their domain and especial food source. They frequent beaches and intertidal mud flats in search of food and have also developed the ability to hawk for cicadas and moths, something the naturalist George Thompson writing in the early part of the century thought was peculiar to the New Zealand bird.
Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian naturalist, observed that sparrows exhibit spatial intelligence. I recently watched a pair of clever birds repeatedly use a tiny space under the flap of the marquee tent at Rainbow Springs to find their way to the crumbs dropped from the tables. Most birds when caught inside are helpless and panic stricken but not the house sparrow.
They are an enormously successful species, like Homo sapiens. The wide variety of their diet contributes to their success as does their ability to evade predators. They keep a wary watch for predators and set up a loud raucous noise to warn their own and other birds. Like humans they appear to work together and have exploited almost every available ecological niche.
They are a serious agricultural pest as well as making a nuisance of themselves in towns and cities around food outlets such as cafes. Very many of them are poisoned. In Galilee 2000 years ago, two sparrows were sold for a farthing or five for two farthings. The buyers ate their purchases. Perhaps we should revive the custom of sparrow pie, rather than poison sparrows as pests.
Sparrow from Eleazar Albin's Natural History of Birds, 1731–38.
14 cm., 30 g., adult male chestnut brown above, streaked black on back, crown grey, rump greyish brown, underparts greyish white, black bib and bill in breeding season; female and juvenile drab buff brown with darker streaks, greyish white below.
Widespread and common.
Lugete, O Veneres Cupidinesque,
et quantum est hominum venustiorum:
passer mortuus est meae puellae,
passer, deliciae meae puellae,
quem plus illa oculis suis amabat.
nam mellitus erat suamque norat
ipsam tam bene quam puella matrem,
nec sese a gremio illius movebat,
sed circumsiliens modo huc modo illuc
ad solam dominam usque pipiabat;
qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum
illud, unde negant redire quemquam.
at vobis male sit, malae tenebrae
Orci, quae omnia bella devoratis:
tam bellum mihi passerem abstulistis.
O factum male! O miselle passer!
tua nunc opera meae puellae
flendo turgiduli rubent ocelli.
Passer, deliciae meae puellae,
quicum ludere, quem in sinu tenere,
cui primum digitum dare appetenti
et acris solet incitare morsus,
cum desiderio meo nitenti
carum nescio quid lubet iocari,
et solaciolum sui doloris,
credo, ut tum gravis acquiescat ardor:
tecum ludere sicut ipsa possem
et tristis animi levare curas!
Mourn, ye Graces and Loves, and all you whom the Graces love. My lady’s sparrow is dead, the sparrow my lady’s pet, whom she loved more than her very eyes; for honey–sweet he was, and knew his mistress as well as a girl knows her own mother. Nor would he stir from her lap, but hopping now here, now there, would still chirp to his mistress alone. Now he goes along the dark road, thither whence they say no one returns. But curse upon you, cursed shades of Orcus, which devour all pretty things! My pretty sparrow, you have taken away. Ah, cruel! Ah, poor little bird! All because of you my lady’s darling eyes are heavy and red with weeping.
Gould, John, Birds of Great Britain, 1862–73.
Albin, Eleazar, Natural History of Birds, 1731–38.
Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.
Oliver, W.R.B., New Zealand Birds, 1955.