Tree sparrow (l), house sparrow (m) and dunnock (r) | The RSPB

So, you think you know your sparrows…?

House sparrows are a very familiar garden bird.

They’re often dismissed as ‘little brown jobs’ but they’re far from boring, with smart plumage and fascinating social lives. Their cheerful chirps are a happy reminder of nature, even in the most urban of environments.

In slightly more rural settings, however, the house sparrow is sometimes seen side by side with its country cousin the tree sparrow. To the casual eye, these two species look extremely similar, but once you know what you’re looking for, there are some distinct differences that can help tell them apart.

 

Hedge sparrows, more properly called dunnocks, aren’t sparrows at all, but they do look a little bit like female house sparrows, so it’s worth including them here to help avoid confusion.

House sparrow, king of the Big Garden Birdwatch!

Identification

  • Small birds, about the size of a chaffinch.
  • Males tend to look a little more plump than females.
  • Males and females look very different; juveniles look similar to females.
  • Males have brown backs with black markings, pale grey fronts and whitish faces. They have a black bib, which can vary in size, and a chestnut-coloured crown cut through by a thick grey stripe that runs over the top of their heads.
  • Females and juveniles have brown backs with black markings, pale chests without the bib, and much simpler markings on their heads. They usually have a white/yellow stripe behind their eyes.

Call/Song

The commonest call is a basic, but often very loud, ‘cheep cheep’. Their song is just this cheep repeated over and over again. In spring, you may hear groups of sparrows all calling at once from deep within bushes or hedgerows making quite a noise! They also sometimes make a scolding chur, which can be an alarm call.

Behaviour

House sparrows are boisterous birds that tend to live in small groups, often close to people. Unlike many of our garden birds, they don’t migrate, though they will travel to seek out food. They’ll happily use birdfeeders, and some can become very tame. Adults eat seeds from various plants, though they also eat insects, which is what they feed to their chicks. You’ll often see them hopping around on the ground in groups, or bathing together where there’s a pond or birdbath. They have quite short wings, and they’re not strong fliers, so they always like to stay near cover where they can escape from predators.  

Nesting

House sparrows tend to pair for life, and work together to build their round nests of grass or straw. They prefer to nest in holes or crevices in buildings, but will also nest in hedges or use nest boxes. Both adults feed the young, and they usually have two or even three broods in a year.

Where to look

House sparrows figured out a long time ago that living near humans can have advantages. They’re the most common bird seen every year in the Big Garden Birdwatch, and if you put up a few feeders, you’re almost bound to see them (they particularly like fat balls, sunflower seeds and peanuts). You might also spot them on city streets, in stations, parks and on wasteland, as well as out in the countryside in hedgerows and on agricultural fields. It might seem amazing, then, that house sparrows are actually red listed as a bird of conservation concern, but their numbers have fallen by up to 90% in some places since the 1970s.

House sparrow call

Tree sparrow, cheeky bird

Identification

  • Small birds, a little bit neater than house sparrows.
  • Males and females look the same; juveniles look like slightly faded adults.
  • They have brown backs and a more buff chest than male house sparrows with a very small black bib. They also have a completely chestnut-coloured crown and a much whiter face.  
  • They have a distinctive dark cheek spot. This is often the easiest distinguishing feature to look for.
  • They’re much less common than house sparrows, and you’re most likely to see them in rural settings, or at the edge of towns or villages.   

Call/Song

The call is similar to house sparrows, but more of a zee zee sound than a straightforward cheep. Again, the song is just a continuous repeat of the call. 

Behaviour

Tree sparrows are much more timid around people than house sparrows, and tend to be less boisterous in general. Like house sparrows, they’re social birds and prefer to nest and live in groups. They eat seeds from grasses and weeds, as well as cultivated grains like barley and wheat, though they will also eat small insects, which is what they feed to their young. They sometimes come to garden feeders, particularly in winter, and particularly if there are groups of house sparrows that they can join.  

Nesting

As the name suggests, they’re less likely to nest in houses than house sparrows, and more likely to nest in trees! But they do like holes, so they may also nest in cliffs or banks, even in old (or occasionally active) sand martin nests. They’ll sometimes choose dense bushes or farm buildings, and will use nest boxes. Conservation projects often put up nest boxes to help support tree sparrows in areas where they are struggling.  

Where to look

Tree sparrows are a red-listed species, suffering big declines since the 1970s, so much so that only small, localised populations remain. You won’t see one in a city, but they’re also absent from the countryside in large parts of southern England, much of Wales, and most of Scotland apart from the east and south. In areas where they’re clinging on, they’re usually associated with farmland. They form small colonies in the breeding season, and then come together into larger flocks in the winter to feed in stubble fields, often mixed in with other species. In rural towns and villages, they will sometimes visit garden feeders, and even occasionally breed in garden nest boxes. It’s easy to miss one or two tree sparrows in amongst a big group of house sparrows, so look out for those cheek spots if you’re in the right sort of area. 

Tree sparrow call

Jarek Matusiak, Xeno-canto

Dunnock, famous for its infidelity

Identification

  • Small birds, a little bit neater than house sparrows.
  • Males and females look the same, juveniles are less grey than adults.
  • Brown backs with black markings and a brown crown. Their chests and faces are very grey.
  • The beak is thin and pointed, rather than the short stubby beak of the other sparrows.
  • They tend to be solitary or seen in pairs, and spend a lot of time skulking around on the ground     

Call/Song

The song is a loud, squeaky warble, like someone writing on a whiteboard with a creaky pen. They sing from bushes or high in trees, and you’ll mostly hear them in the first half of the year. The call is a little squeaky ‘peep’.

Behaviour

Dunnocks are not sparrows, they’re actually the only UK member of a bird family called the accentors. Their thin beaks are ideally suited for eating invertebrates, and they spend most of their time hopping around on the ground in search of spiders and insects. They’re often described as ‘mouse-like’, as they mooch around the undergrowth, popping in and out of view. You usually only see one or two at a time, though multiple birds are sometimes seen together in the breeding season, when rather vicious fights can break out. They will visit feeders, but it’s more usual to see them on the ground underneath. They don’t even seem to like feeding on bird tables.  

Nesting

Dunnocks can have surprisingly underhand breeding partnerships, with a single female and single male setup being unusual. Often one female will openly mate with one male and then secretly mate with another, which encourages both males to help care for any chicks. But sometimes, the males will mate with multiple females, and help look after several broods at once. Even more confusingly, there are situations where both males and females end up with multiple partners across multiple territories. It’s all quite remarkable behaviour for such an unassuming bird! But whatever the set-up, they like to build their cup-shaped nests in dense shrubs or bushes, and gardens are often perfect for their needs. They can have three broods a year.

Where to look

You don’t have to look far to see dunnocks, as they’re a very common garden bird throughout much of the UK (except Shetland). They’re quite happy living in small gardens, even in cities and suburban areas, but they’re particularly at home in gardens where there are dense shrubs they can nest in, and bird feeders for them to pick up scraps from. You can also see them in woodland and parks, farmland, moorland and even in conifer plantations! They tend to stay in the same territory for the whole year, and you should see them almost anywhere, except in remote, upland areas.

Dunnock call

Mistle thrush (l) and song thrush (r) | The RSPB

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