Any of the small, chiefly seed-eating birds having conical bills is known as Sparrow. The sparrow can be any bird that belongs to the families of Passeridae and Passerellidae. But the bird that is generally referred to as the sparrow is the house sparrow bird as it is the most common form of sparrow found all around the world. The House sparrow belongs to the genus Passer of the family Passeridae.
A significant sparrow bird information is that the birds belonging to the family Passeridae are known as Old World Sparrows, whereas the birds belonging to the family of Passerellidae are known as the New World Sparrows. As the genus Passer comes under the classification of family Passeriday, the Old World sparrows are also known as true sparrows. Hence, for the most generally domesticated or a common household species of the bird, the scientific name of the sparrow is Passer domesticus.
Classification of Sparrow Species
Classified under the order of Passeriformes, in Latin meaning - sparrow shaped, the families of Passeridae and Passerellidae are families of perching wild birds that are most commonly found all over the world and very close to human habitation. The most generally identified birds of the sparrow species are the birds belonging to the genus of Passer or as ordinarily known - The House Sparrow.
The two families, more colloquially known as the Old World Sparrow (Passeridae) and the New World Sparrow (Passerellidae) are distinguished by their appearance. The Old world sparrows are small, plump, brown and grey birds having short tails and short, thick but powerful beaks. The New World Sparrows are quite different from the Old ones as they were previously classified with the Old World buntings, under the family Emberizidae. But owing to the nuclear and mitochondrial DNA analysis, phylogenetically they were found to have no relation to the buntings and hence were classified as a separate family under Passeriformes after 2017. In appearance and habit, the New World Sparrows are more closely related to the finches than to the Old World Sparrows as they have distinctive head patterns along with conical bills. Like the Old World Sparrows, the New World Sparrows are brown or grey in colour.
The Old World family of the sparrow bird consists of 43 species of sparrows divided into 8 genera. One of the 43 species is the House sparrow (Scientific name of sparrow - P. domesticus). The New World family of the sparrow bird consists of 138 species of sparrows divided into 29 genera, as recognised by the International Ornithological Congress.
Thus, with their huge numbers of species, and an overwhelming population, the sparrows are the most commonly found wild birds which are live very closely with the human population. There can be frequent confusions because of the name-sharing such as the Java sparrows which are classified under the family of Estrildidae but are called sparrows. Another example of such an old style of reference to small birds is the hedge sparrow or the dunnock.
The images of the birds belonging to the Old World Sparrow family and the New World Sparrow family are given below:
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The significant differences in the patterning of the head are distinctly visible.
Significant Sparrow Information: Appearance and Behaviour
The small, plump, brown and grey coloured birds having short tails and stubby powerful beaks are the Old World sparrows. The differences between the many species of the sparrow bird can be very minute and are subtle. The sparrow size varies greatly amongst the species of the family of Old sparrows, ranging from the Chestnut sparrow (Passer eminibey) at 11.4 cm height and 13.4 gm in weight to Parrot-billed Sparrow (Passer gongonensis) at 18 cm height and 42 gm in weight. They are similar to other birds such as finches but are distinguishable because of the presence of a vestigial organ which is the outer primary feather. They also have an extra bone in their tongue to hold on to their seeds by stiffening the tongue.
In contrast to the appearance of the Old World sparrows, many species of the New World sparrows have distinctive head patterns that make them unique during identification. Apart from the distinctive head patterns, they have conical bills and are brown or grey in colour like the Old World buntings. Several of the sparrow species in this family of sparrow bird are notable for their singing ability.
An adaptation that particularly is of significance to their feeding habits is the specialised bills, which are short yet powerful and strong. Also, they have elongated and specialised alimentary canals adapted to their dietary habits.
The Old World birds are generally social. Many of the species are found in loose colonies during the breeding season while in the non-breeding season they are found in huge flocks. An exception to this is the Great sparrow bird which is found to form flocks during the breeding season when in the non-breeding season it prefers a solitary lifestyle. These flocks when aggregated for roosting behaviour will include members only from a single species which otherwise may tend to get multispecies while foraging for food.
The peculiarity of the Old World species involves their dust bathing behavioural engagements. They scratch a hole in the earth with their feet and then lie in it and fling the dirt over their bodies using the flick of their wings. Similarly they also bathe in water, and in dry or melting snow. These activities are quite social and may involve hundreds of birds participating in it, followed by preening and sometimes group singing.
Sparrow Diet and Habitat
All the members of the sparrow bird community, both the Old and the New World, are perching birds and are prominently seed-eaters. Although they are more evolved as seed-eaters they are also widely known to feed on small insects and sometimes some worms. Especially the young ones, feed on the insects as well while growing. Some of the species are known to look around for food around the cities and like the gulls or the rock doves eat anything in small quantities.
The Old World sparrows are indigenous to the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. In the Americas and Australia, they were brought by the settlers from other continents. They quickly naturalised all over the new continents particularly in urban and degraded areas. House sparrows are widespread throughout North America, Australia, parts of southern and eastern Africa, and in the heavily populated parts of South America. The species of the New world sparrows are also found almost on all continents with some exceptions.
The Old World sparrows are generally birds that roam around in open habitats. They are found in grasslands, desserts and scrubland. In the high altitudes, the normally found species are the snow finches and the ground-sparrows. The Eurasian tree sparrow bird is found to inhabit the open woodlands. A species of the family, the cinnamon ibon is found in the most unusual habitat for sparrows which is the cloud forest canopy in the Philippines. The familiarity of the sparrow bird arises from the fact that many species like the Eurasian tree sparrow also reside and nest on buildings and houses, a common occurrence in cities.
Most members of the New World family of sparrows are found breeding in North America such as the chipping sparrow (scientific name of sparrow - Spizella passerina) and tree sparrow (S. arborea). They are found in the savanna, the grassy fields, woodlands, etc. Some species for example the rufous-collared sparrow bird (scientific name - Zonotrichia capensis) have a very wide distribution ranging from Mexico and Caribbean islands to Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago in the South American continent. There are many other species of this family that are also native to the North and South American continents.
Sparrow Facts Regarding the Relationship with Humans
The Old World Sparrows are so familiar with the human population that they have become an integral part of the human culture. Many of the species are found to inhabit agricultural lands and for many of them, the human settlements are their primary habitat. 17 out of the 26 sparrow species, as recognized by the Handbook of the Birds of the World, are known to reside, nest and feed around buildings.
The grain-eating species, such as the house and Sudan golden sparrows, can be significant for the agricultural practices as pest-control mechanisms. They are beneficial to humans by maintaining control of the insect population as well. In some cases, the decrease in the sparrow population has been found to lead to an increase in insect attacks.
Culturally also they have found a common place amongst humans. Owing to their close and omnipresence, in some cultures, the house sparrows represent the common, vulgar or the lewd. In some cultures, the writers have maintained the house sparrow as the centre subject in their literary works. The Old world sparrows are associated with the Greek goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of love, for their perceived lustfulness which has been also mentioned by late writers such as Shakespeare.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus uses “sparrows”, as an example of divine providence. This became the inspiration for the Gospel hymn, “His Eye is on the sparrow” and the final scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Some of the species of the Old World family have been kept as pets, the traces of which can be traced back to the Romans. Thus, some of the species were introduced to the continents of Australia and the Americas as they were carried as pets by travellers.
Concluding on the Question - What is a Sparrow?
A sparrow is a small brown or grey bird with strong and short beaks for eating seeds and sometimes cracking open the nuts. The sparrow bird is found widely distributed across all the continents of the world. The most common species of the sparrows is the House sparrow belonging to the Old World family of sparrows. The New World sparrows however are more related to the finches than the Old World sparrows by their distinctive head patterns.
Feeding on the seeds to small insects, sparrows are the most common sight amongst the urban human population in cities filled with buildings and houses. Thus, their common occurrence has garnered them a small place in some human cultures as well.