PasseridaeOld World sparrows(Also: sparrows and relatives)


The family Passeridae includes Old World sparrows, snowfinches and relatives. They are often confused with New World sparrows (family Emberizidae). Though they share a superficial resemblance, these two groups are not closely related. Most members of this family are brown or gray and lack any bright coloration. They are seed eaters and have a short, strong, decurved bill. Their songs are usually simple.

Old World sparrows were originally found in Europe, Asia and Africa. However, as a result of introductions by humans, today they have an almost worldwide distribution. Old World sparrows generally inhabit open areas. They are well adapted to urban landscapes and can be found alongside humans throughout the world.

Howard and Moore’s Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World (2003) lists 11 genera and 40 species within Passeridae. (Dickinson, 2003; Groschupf, 2001; )

Geographic Range

Members of the family Passeridae are native to the Palearctic, Ethiopian and Oriental regions, and the highest diversity of Old World sparrows exists in these regions. Humans introduced Old World sparrows to the Nearctic, Neotropical and Australian regions. House sparrows (Passer domesticus) and Eurasian tree sparrows (Passer montanus) have been the most successful of the introduced sparrows. In fact, house sparrows, which are native to North Africa, Europe and Asia, are now the most widespread bird species in the world. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Eno, 2002; Groschupf, 2001; ; Summers-Smith, 1988)


Old World sparrows generally live in open habitats and are not usually found in forests. They are found in rocky arid habitat, open woodlands, swamps, marshy areas, scrub, savanna, forest clearings, coastal cliffs and near agricultural, suburban and urban areas. They can also live and breed inside buildings such as airports and shopping malls. In fact, they are so adaptable that one pair of sparrows actually survived and bred 640 meters underground in a coal mine in England. They survived on food given to them by miners. Old World sparrows can be found in habitats from sea level up to 4500 meters. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Groschupf, 2001; ; Summers-Smith, 1988)

Physical Description

Old World sparrows are small to medium sized, stocky birds (12 to 18 cm long) with a short bill with a decurved culmen and short legs. They do not have the bright coloration typical of some birds Rather, most are dull browns and grays and may have black and white markings. Old World sparrows strongly resemble New World sparrows, and the two are often confused.

Most species of Old World sparrows are sexually dimorphic. Males are usually bigger than females, and sometimes have black on the throat and chin along with some black on their heads. Both females and juveniles usually have less coloration than adult males. Male feather colors may be brighter during the breeding season. In some species, the bill changes color from tan to black during the breeding season. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Groschupf, 2001; ; Summers-Smith, 1988)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful


Old World sparrows are usually monogamous. However, polygyny does occur. Even among the socially monogamous species, extra-pair copulation (birds mating with individuals other than their mate) is common. Males defend breeding territories and attract mates by calling. In some species, males have courtship displays which may involve feather fluffing, holding the wings out, shaking them, and raising the tail feathers. Displays are usually accompanied by calling. Pairs will sometimes take part in mutual preening. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Groschupf, 2001; ; Summers-Smith, 1988)

Breeding coincides with times of maximum food abundance, usually in the spring. In arid habitats, breeding is associated with the rainy season. Because of this, irrigation by farmers can affect when these birds breed. Many species have more than one brood per year (up to four, usually two to three) and they will re-nest if their initial nest is lost due to depredation. There is one record of a house sparrow (Passer domesticus) raising seven broods in a single season.

Many species of Old World sparrows nest colonially. Nests are often placed in tree cavities, rock crevices, nest boxes or holes in man-made buildings. They also build nests in trees and shrubs. Their untidy nests are often domed (although some species build open cup nests) and are made with grass and lined with feathers. They will often steal nesting material from neighbors. Old World sparrows will reuse nests, both within a single breeding season and from year to year.

Clutch size ranges from 1 to 8 (4 to 5 on average). Eggs are white with dark spots. Incubation lasts 9 to 16 days and the eggs hatch synchronously. Young are fed by both parents and fledge after 10 to 21 days; they will fledge earlier if the nest is disturbed. Young reach sexual maturity in 6 months to a year. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Groschupf, 2001; ; Summers-Smith, 1988)

Incubation lasts 9 to 16 days and the eggs hatch synchronously. The altricial young are fed by both parents. Parents also remove fecal sacks and may brood young birds. The chicks fledge after 10 to 21 days, earlier if the nest is disturbed. The males feed the fledglings for a few days after they leave the nest, before the young join flocks of other juveniles. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Groschupf, 2001; ; Summers-Smith, 1988)


Annual adult survival is usually between 45 to 65 percent for members of Passeridae. The oldest recorded Old World sparrow was a house sparrow (Passer domesticus) that lived to be 13 years and 4 months in the wild. There are also records of grey-headed sparrows (Passer griseus) that survived 11 years in captivity, golden sparrows (Passer luteus) living 9 to 14 years in captivity and house sparrows living 12 to 14 years in captivity. (; Summers-Smith, 1988)


Old World sparrows are highly gregarious; they often roost and breed communally and form feeding flocks. Dominance hierarchies can exist within feeding flocks. Old World sparrows are mainly diurnal, but will sometimes feed at night in urban areas to catch insects that are attracted to lights. Males are territorial during the breeding season. They defend their territories by calling and giving threatening displays with their wings held out and tail feathers spread apart and raised. Birds will attack each other if a territorial battle escalates.

Most members of Passeridae are non-migratory. Palearctic species make small seasonal movements. Species living at high elevations may move to lower elevations during winter.

Old World sparrows bathe in water if it is available and sand bathe in arid areas. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Groschupf, 2001; ; Summers-Smith, 1988)

Communication and Perception

Unlike many Passerines, most Old World sparrows do not have a true song. They usually chip and sometimes string chip-notes together. They also have distinct alarm calls.

Old World sparrows have numerous threat and mating displays that individuals use to communicate with other. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Summers-Smith, 1988)

Food Habits

Old World sparrows are omnivorous. During the breeding season they are primarily insectivores. Throughout the rest of the year they are primarily seed eaters. They eat cereals, grain, grass and weed seeds, seed sprouts, berries and buds, insects and spiders. In urban areas they will also eat human waste. Young sparrows are fed primarily insects.

Old World sparrows often feed in flocks, usually on the ground. There are dominance hierarchies within feeding flocks and sometimes females will displace males at feeders. They are usually diurnal, but will sometimes feed at night in urban areas to catch insects that are attracted to lights. Bill length can change as much as 5 to 15 percent during the non-breeding season. The seeds the birds eat wear down their bills at a faster rate than they can grow back. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Groschupf, 2001; ; Summers-Smith, 1988)


Known predators of Old World sparrows include hawks (family Accipitridae), owls (family Strigidae), snakes (suborder Serpentes), house cats (Felis silvestris) and raccoons (Procyon lotor). In a study in England, Churcher and Lawton (1987) found that 30 percent of house sparrow (Passer domesticus) deaths could be attributed to cats. A possible strategy Old World sparrows use to reduce predation is foraging in flocks, a behavior that allows for increased vigilance and reduces each individual bird's chance of being caught. (Churcher and Lawton, 1987; Granholm, 2003; Summers-Smith, 1988)

Ecosystem Roles

Old World sparrows are important members of their ecosystem. Because of their food habits, they likely have a regulatory influence on insect populations, and they are an important food source for their predators. They also serve as seed dispersal agents for many plant species. House sparrows (Passer domesticus) in particular also have a large (although negative) effect on many other bird species. They are very aggressive and are able to take over nests and kill the eggs and nestlings of other birds. This is particularly problematic in the areas where they have been introduced, since they displace native species, many of which are already facing population declines. (Granholm, 2003; Groschupf, 2001; )

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Old World sparrows help to control the populations of some agricultural pests, especially those found on corn, grapes and wheat. They are also common visitors to bird feeders. (Summers-Smith, 1988)

  • Positive Impacts
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Old World sparrows are crop pests, causing damage in orchards and gardens. They can also be problematic in urban areas where flocks gather and leave droppings that can kill ornamental plants and cause damage to cars. They also build nests in unwanted places such as air vents and eaves of buildings. In addition, they can carry diseases such as Newcastle disease, salmonelosis and toxoplasmosis, among others. They can also spread parasites to humans and livestock. Much time and money are spent to exclude unwanted sparrows. House sparrows (Passer domesticus) in particular cause the problems listed above because they are so widespread and abundant. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Groschupf, 2001; ; Summers-Smith, 1988; Texas Wildlife Damage Management Service, 2003)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans
    • carries human disease
  • crop pest
  • household pest

Conservation Status

No members of the family Passeridae are listed by the IUCN, CITES, the US MBTA or the US Federal List. As a result of changes in agricultural processes, some populations are declining. However, at this point, Old World sparrows do not require conservation efforts. ("UNEP-WCMC Species Database: CITES-Listed Species", 2003; IUCN, 2002; Sibley and Ahlquist, 1990; Threatened and Endangered Species System, 2003; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, date unknown)

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated

Other Comments

House sparrows were introduced to North America in the 1850’s with the hope that they would eat the green inch worms that were causing problems in Central Park in New York City and help eliminate crop pests. New immigrants to North America also wanted familiar birds around them. The introductions were successful in that the sparrows successfully colonized in their new range. However, they did not successfully eradicate the insect pests. (Eno, 2002)


Alaine Camfield (author), Animal Diversity Web.

Kari Kirschbaum (editor), Animal Diversity Web.



Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

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living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

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living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

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living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

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living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

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uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.


having a worldwide distribution. Found on all continents (except maybe Antarctica) and in all biogeographic provinces; or in all the major oceans (Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


union of egg and spermatozoan


an animal that mainly eats seeds


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


a distribution that more or less circles the Arctic, so occurring in both the Nearctic and Palearctic biogeographic regions.

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Found in northern North America and northern Europe or Asia.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body


referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

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reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


the regions of the earth that surround the north and south poles, from the north pole to 60 degrees north and from the south pole to 60 degrees south.


Referring to a mating system in which a female mates with several males during one breeding season (compare polygynous).


having more than one female as a mate at one time


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.


uses sight to communicate


2003. "UNEP-WCMC Species Database: CITES-Listed Species" (On-line). Accessed February 19, 2004 at

Campbell, B., E. Lack. 1985. A Dictionary of Birds. Vermillion: Buteo Books.

Churcher, P., J. Lawton. 1987. Predation by domestic cats in an English village. Journal of Zoology, 212: 439-455.

Dickinson, E. 2003. The Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of Birds of the World, 3rd edition. London: Christopher Helm.

Eno, S. 2002. "House Sparrows" (On-line). Accessed February 17, 2004 at

Granholm, S. 2003. "California Wildlife Habitat Relationships System" (On-line). Accessed February 17, 2004 at

Groschupf, K. 2001. Old World Sparrows. Pp. 562-564 in C Elphick, J Dunning, D Sibley, eds. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

IUCN, 2002. "The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species" (On-line). Accessed February 19, 2004 at

Payne, R. 2003. "Bird Families of the World" (On-line). Accessed February 19, 2004 at

Sibley, C., J. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds, A study in Molecular Evolution. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Summers-Smith, J. 1988. The Sparrows: A Study of the Genus Passer. Calton: T & AD Poyser Ltd.

Texas Wildlife Damage Management Service, 2003. "Wildlife Damage Management, Controlling House Sparrows (PDF)" (On-line). Accessed February 19, 2004 at

Threatened and Endangered Species System, 2003. "U.S. Listed Vertebrate Animal Species Report by Taoxonomic Group" (On-line). Accessed February 19, 2004 at

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, date unknown. "Birds Protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act" (On-line). Accessed February 19, 2004 at