Tree sparrow, Passer montanus

Tree sparrow

The tree sparrow is generally found on lowland farmland with arable or mixed farming.

Tree sparrows in brief

The UK population of the tree sparrow declined by 95 per cent between 1970 and 1998*. This is probably because fewer seed and insect food sources are available to them on farmland. 

Tree sparrows nest in holes, traditionally in old trees, hedges or farm buildings. Protecting these nest sites is vital. 

*Data source: British Trust for Ornithology

Key points

  • Use low-input crop management, field margins or wetland features to create insect-rich habitats.
  • Use over-wintered stubble or wild bird seed mixtures to provide seed food throughout the winter.
  • Ensure there are nesting holes available in trees and farm buildings, or use nestboxes.

What this species needs

Insects and spiders to feed to chicks in the spring and summer 

Tree sparrow chicks are fed on insects for the first two weeks of life. These insects come from a wide range of habitats including hedges, crops and waterside vegetation. 

Lots of seeds throughout the year 

Adults feed mainly on seeds. They seek places where they can find lots of seed food. Such areas include rotational set-aside, winter stubbles, root crops, wild bird cover, weeds in the crop margins or areas of spilt grain.

Holes for nesting

Tree sparrows nest in colonies in holes in trees, farm buildings and nestboxes. Occasionally they build nests in dense bushes. It would be easy to remove or destroy vital nesting habitats inadvertently without being aware of a colony.   

Tree sparrow Passer montanus

How to help

On set-aside

  • You can provide seed food throughout the winter at a low cost with small plots (eg one acre) of wild bird cover. Establish a seed-rich crop in the spring and maintain it for two years. Kale and quinoa are particularly useful components in the mix. 
  • The natural regeneration of rotational set-aside provides more seed food over winter than non-rotational set-aside. 
  • Delay the use of a broad-spectrum herbicide for as long as possible. This will prolong the benefits into the breeding season. 

On arable land

  • Only use pesticides when the infestation exceeds the economic threshold. Try to avoid using broad-spectrum insecticides after 15 March. These remove beneficial insects and spiders which move into the crops in the spring. The loss of this food source is particularly damaging to tree sparrows. 
  • Adopt conservation headlands. Avoid spraying the outer six metres of cereal fields with insecticides or herbicides targeted at broad-leaved weeds. This enables beneficial insects and chick food for tree sparrows to survive. You can get agronomic advice from the Game Conservancy Trust. 
  • Spray and cultivate stubbles as late as possible. This provides important winter feeding habitat. 
  • The set-aside options described above are very important on farms where overwinter stubbles are not a viable option. 
  • Provide a food supply for tree sparrows by creating grass margins around arable fields. Select margins which have thick hedges.

On grassland

  • Introduce arable fodder crops or small plots of wild bird cover to provide a seed-rich habitat in pastoral areas. Maize is probably not of value to tree sparrows unless it is undersown with a seed-bearing crop such as linseed. 
  • Fence off margins of up to six metres around improved grassland and leave these unfertilised, uncut and ungrazed. Graze or cut in September every two to three years. Select margins which have thick hedges. 

Looking after nest sites

  • You could ask a local birdwatcher or your county bird club to find the nesting area of your tree sparrow colony. This will ensure the colony is safe from accidental damage. 
  • Maintain large thick hedges on the farm and retain any old bushes, trees or farm buildings that may contain nesting holes. 
  • Continue to manage old pollard trees and re-pollard neglected trees, as these provide nest sites. 
  • Use nestboxes to supplement the number of nest sites. Boxes should have 2.8cm diameter entrance holes and an internal box depth of 20cm. Tree sparrows nest in colonies, so place several boxes on each tree, close together and above head height. 
Tree sparrow Passer montanus, perched on small branch