1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sparrow

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SPARROW (O. Eng. spearwa; Icel. spörr; O.H.G. Sparo), a word perhaps (like the equivalent Latin passer) originally meaning almost any small bird, but gradually restricted in signification, and nowadays in common English applied to only four kinds, which are further differentiated as hedge-sparrow, house-sparrow, tree-sparrow and reed-sparrow — the last being a bunting (q.v.) — though when used without a prefix the second of these is usually intended.

1. The hedge-sparrow, called “dunnock” in many parts of Britain, Accentor modularis of the sub-family Turdinae of the thrushes (q.v.), is the little brown-backed bird with an iron-grey head and neck that is to be seen in nearly every garden throughout the country, unobtrusively and yet tamely seeking its food, which consists almost wholly of insects, as it progresses over the ground in short jumps, each movement being accompanied by a slight jerk or shuffle of the wings. Though on the continent of Europe it regularly migrates, it is one of the few soft-billed birds that reside throughout the year with us, and is one of the earliest breeders — its well-known greenish-blue eggs, laid in a warmly built nest, being recognized by hundreds as among the surest signs of returning spring; but a second or even a third brood is produced later. The cock has a sweet but rather feeble song; and the species has long been accounted, though not with accuracy, to be the most common dupe of the cuckoo. Several other species are assigned to the genus Accentor; but all, except the Japanese A. rubidus, which is the counterpart of the British hedge-sparrow, inhabit more or less rocky situations, and one, A. collaris, or alpinus, is a denizen of the higher mountain-ranges of Europe, though it has several times strayed to England.

2. The house-sparrow, the Fringilla domestica of Linnaeus and Passer domesticus of modern authors, is far too well known to need any description of its appearance or habits, being found, whether in country or town, more attached to human dwellings than any other wild bird; nay, more than that, one may safely assert that it is not known to thrive anywhere far away from the habitations or works of men, extending its range in such countries as northern Scandinavia and many parts of the Russian Empire as new settlements are formed and land brought under cultivation. Thus questions arise as to whether it should not be considered a parasite throughout the greater portion of the area it now occupies, and as to what may have been its native country. Moreover, it has been introduced to several of the large towns of North America and to many of the British colonies, in nearly all of which, as had been foreseen by ornithologists, it has multiplied to excess and has become an intolerable nuisance, being unrestrained by the natural checks which partly restrict its increase in Europe and Asia. Whether indeed in the older seats of civilization the house-sparrow is not decidedly injurious to the agriculturist and horticulturist has long been a matter of discussion, and no definite result that a fair judge can accept has yet been reached. It is freely admitted that the damage done to growing crops is often enormous, but as yet the service frequently rendered by the destruction of insect-pests cannot be calculated. In the south of Europe the house-sparrow is in some measure replaced by two allied species, P. hispaniolensis and P. italiae, whose habits are essentially identical with its own; and it is doubtful whether the sparrow of India, P. indicus, is specifically distinct; but Africa has several members of the genus which are decidedly so.

3. The tree-sparrow, the Fringilla montana of Linnaeus and Passer montanus of modern writers — both sexes of which much resemble the male house-sparrow, but are easily distinguishable by the reddish-brown crown, the black patch on the sides of the neck, and doubly-barred wings — is a much more local species, in England generally frequenting the rows of pollard-willows that line so many rivers and canals, in the holes of which it breeds; but in some Eastern countries, and especially in China, it frequents houses, even in towns, and so fills the place of the house-sparrow. Its geographical distribution is extensive and marked by some curious characters, among which may be mentioned that, being a great wanderer, it has effected settlement seven in such remote islands as the Faeroes and some of the Outer Hebrides.

The genus Passer belongs to the Passerine family Fringillidae. The American birds called “sparrows” have little in common with the members of the genus Passer, and belong to the family Emberizidae, which is closely allied to the Fringillidae.

(A. N.)