The House Sparrow/The House Sparrow: by an Ornithologist

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By an Ornithologist,

J. H. GURNEY, Junr.

THE common house sparrow (Passer domesticus; fringillidæ, the finch tribe) has some enthusiastic patrons in this country among the friends of dumb animals, and it has many deadly enemies among farmers and gardeners. I do not propose to enter into the charges brought against it by gardeners,[1] so much as to treat the question from a farmer's point of view.

No one can for a moment doubt that the sparrow question is now a very important one, and that it is becoming, year by year, more so; that is, if only a tithe of what has been said and written about it at farmers' clubs and in agricultural newspapers be true. A large farmer in Cheshire told his audience at a meeting last year that in his opinion sparrows, assisted by other small birds, had done the country £770,094 worth of damage in a year, reckoning a bushel per acre all over the kingdom (vide The Times, Sept. 13th, 1884, Chester Courant, Aug. 27th). If this tremendous estimate be anywhere near the mark it may well be asked, 'Is any consumption of insects in summer likely to make amends for it?' Yet it appears to be the deduction of a careful man, made to a very sympathetic audience, who had suffered largely in their district, near Chester.[2]


The point at issue—and it is only by discussing it temperately that we shall arrive at the truth, and by entirely putting aside prejudice which has marked many utterances on the subject—is, Would the caterpillars and seeds of weeds, which the sparrows eat, consume, or injure, as much agricultural produce as the sparrows consume? And if the sparrows were all dead, it may be asked, 'Would other birds keep down these seeds and caterpillars as fully as they are kept down now?' Nineteen farmers out of twenty would say at the outset, that there can be no question at all about the matter—that sparrows do so much harm to crops, that it is impossible that any number of caterpillars upon which their young are fed, can be enough to compensate. On the other hand, the friends of the sparrow are equally one-sided. Having settled in their own minds that it is a mistake to destroy any small birds, and forgetful of the warnings which come to us from the United States and New Zealand, and every colony where the sparrow has been introduced, they shut their eyes to its misdeeds, and will only look at its merits.[3]

'There can, I think, be no doubt,' writes the Rev. F. O. Morris, 'but that the harm they may do, even granting it to be considerable, is compensated, and more than compensated, by that which they prevent.'—Brit. Birds, ii., p. 278.

This appears to be the opinion of several other naturalists; and, although one fact is worth a peck of theories, their opinions are not to be disregarded.


The various ways in which sparrows do harm to crops are well known to agriculturists; but, perhaps, by no one has the sequence of their proceedings in the field been better put than by the Rev. C. A. Johns (Brit. Birds, p. 202). Sometimes they make descents on the standing corn before the grain has attained full size, and near the hedges the busy pilferers are at work, and fly up in a swarm as you approach them; but when it is quite ripe they do the greatest harm. It is not only what they eat, but what they knock out. A gentleman, who is a practical farmer in Nort Lincolnshire—Mr. J. Cordeaux—tells me he has seen acres which had the appearance of being threshed with a flail. Taking this into consideration, the opinion of the Melbourne (Derbyshire) Sparrow Club—that sparrows destroy a quart of corn apiece during the summer (vide Zoologist, p. 2299)—is probably true. If 30 grains a day is a sparrow's ordinary meal during June, July, and August [and I do not think this is far from the mark, having repeatedly found 20 and 25 whole grains, and once, in November, 40, in a sparrow's crop], it would have eaten, during those three months, 2,760 grains, which is nearly a third of a pint; or if, take the whole year round, each sparrow eats on an average 15 grains a day, then each sparrow eats in a year 5,475 grains. This is none too high an estimate, for the quantity which sparrows eat at stacks in winter time equals what they take from the fields in the summer. During the operations of harvest, I understand they may often be seen sticking to the gradually lessening square of corn until all the field is cut. They then transfer their attentions to the sheaves, and also divide with the gleaners what is left on the stubble. Finally, when the farmer has sold his produce, sparrows take a very large toll out of any portion of it which a purchaser may give to his poultry, as every breeder of chickens and turkeys knows very well. At the end of September a marked decrease is to be seen in their numbers, but whether this is caused by real emigration or by local movements is not clear. It has often been said that sparrows come to us over the North Sea in the autumn; but among the numerous 'wings' I have had from lighthouses and light-vessels I have never received this species.[4] In October sparrows pack into flocks of from 200 to 300 and leave the homesteads. That month is mostly spent in the fields, and so is November; and here they find plenty of occupation, sometimes hunting on their own account, sometimes with other small birds. With the first fall of snow away they go to the stacks, on the sides of which they may be seen clustering; or, if it is not too deep, searching on the ground for grain which has been shaken out, with chaffinches and yellow-hammers. At all times stacks are a great attraction. It is said that preference is given to a wheat-stack; but sparrows are not particular so long as they can get grain. Needless to say, that threshing is a matter of the highest interest to sparrows.[5]

February and March are spent almost entirely in the vicinity of houses and farmyards, or any place where corn is to be found, unless, as previously mentioned, they are attracted to a distance by the operation of threshing. I agree in thinking that at this period the opinion of Colonel Russell, who continues the discussion after me, that corn forms 90% of their food, is true. At the end of March fields are sown, and sparrows show not infrequently, by their presence, that they wish to levy the usual tribute; but it is certain that where a drill is used the grain is deposited too deeply in the soil for any small birds to reach it, except skylarks, which are said to dig it up sometimes; but sparrows get the drilled barley and oats when they begin to sprout.

In addition to the remarks already made on this point—the damage done to corn by sparrows—it would be easy to cite many instances of great and unusual harm caused to tenant-farmers by sparrows, but they are too vague for the purpose; indeed, in such a matter it is exceedingly difficult to be precise. In some instances, and especially near towns, extraordinary estimates have been formed of the damage by the most competent valuers, but as these valuers were not Ornithologists, it is not clear that some of the damage was not done by greenfinches and chaffinches. I have seen large flocks in the fields in November, which I at first thought were sparrows, but which proved on closer inspection to be entirely composed of the species just named.

The following true story was related to me by Colonel Russell:—A farmer at Boreham, near Chelmsford, named Hurrell, had an early field of wheat not far from the village. The sparrows attacked it in the corner nearest the village and devoured a great deal there: the crop was uniform, except from what the sparrows did. Hurrell measured an acre where the sparrows had been at work, and an adjoining acre which they had not meddled with, and thrashed the corn on each of the acres separately, looking after the threshing himself. He found the deficiency to be 2 quarters (16 bushels); value at the time £6.


The sparrow lays five or six greyish-white eggs spotted with brown and ash-colour, and has frequently three broods in the year, the first being hatched towards the end of May. Young sparrows in the nest are generally fed on caterpillars and other insects,[6] particularly in August, yet a good many may be opened in June and July without finding any in them. The parent sparrows will begin to feed them on caterpillars when but a day old, but they seem to discontinue the diet a little time before they leave the nest, though, on the other hand, some young sparrows, which were quite ready to leave the nest, examined in Norfolk, did contain a few small caterpillars. But of this I am sure, that while very young their diet is quite as much unripe corn and vegetable matter as caterpillars.[7] Even at the age of one day a sparrow will feed its young one on a grain of ripe corn. Say that a young sparrow eats 14 or 15 young caterpillars a day, that is probably as good a guess as we can make. If this only went on for ten days the sum-total destroyed would be very vast, and some of the caterpillars of very injurious kinds, such as Caradrina cubicularis, the pale mottled willow moth of Curtis ('Farm Insects,' p. 308), identified for me by Mr. C. G. Barrett and the Rev. J. Hellins.[8]

If one-fourth of the young sparrows hatched in England are fed for ten days on 14 caterpillars apiece, it is easy to make a calculation of how many they would eat in a large agricultural county like Norfolk. Norfolk contains 800 parishes: say that 800 young sparrows are annually hatched in each parish; that gives us a total of 640,000 sparrows. If one-fourth of them are fed on caterpillars, we should have 22,400,000 of these destructive creatures eaten in this one county alone, every year, by sparrows. So that there is a very nice balance to adjust in a matter which the most expert observer might find difficult. On the one hand the young sparrows are fed on a great many caterpillars; on the other hand they are fed with grain, but this is mixed with weeds and other vegetable matter. Again, there is a side light in which to look at the question:—If the sparrows were dead, how many of these caterpillars would be eaten by other small birds? We may be quite sure that a considerable portion of them would not be eaten, unless chaffinches and greenfinches become more numerous than they are now; and if this was so, would not they speedily become much more addicted to corn? I think there is not a doubt about it.


Sparrows do much good to the farmer, in conjunction with many other little birds, by consuming vast numbers of the seeds of weeds. I think not nearly enough has been made of this by their friends and supporters. The following is a list of those which have been actually identified, with my authority for each:

Wild spinach (Chenpodium bonus-henricus), Mr. A. Willis.[9]
Knot grass (Polygonum aviculare), Mr. F. A. Lees.[10]
Black or corn bindweed (P. convolvulus), Mr. F. A. Lees.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).
Goosefoot (Chenopodium album), Mr. F. A. Lees.
Field mustard (Sinapis arvensis), Professor Macgillivray.[11]
Chickweed (Stellaria media), Colonel Russell.[12]
Mouse Ear (Cerastium triviale) Professor Macgillivray.
Wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum), Professor Macgillivray.
Dock (Rumex crispus), Mr. F. A. Lees.
Pale-flowered persicaria (Polygonum lapathifolium), Mr. F. A. Lees.
Buttercup, Mr. H. N. Slater.

These seeds will spread from a hedge, the sides of which are not brushed with a reaping-hook in the summer, and make a field very foul; so that everyone must admit that sparrows and small birds generally do some amount of good by keeping them down. A remarkable instance was mentioned some years ago in the Times, of a field sown with grass and clover seeds, over which a luxuriant growth of knot grass (P. aviculare) spread. The farmer thought that his crop was ruined, but in September such swarms of sparrows as he had never seen before visited the field and fed on the small shining seeds of the knot grass. I regret that I have neither got the date of the letter, nor the name of the writer, the communication, according to a bad practice prevalent among observers, being anonymous.

A sparrow's crop will contain a great many small seeds. Dr. Schleh found 321 whole seeds of chickweed in the crop of one sparrow in Germany! In one shot at Northrepps, in Norfolk, 147 were actually counted, and many more were ground up into pulp in the gizzard. Digestion is rapid, and at this rate a vast number would be consumed in a very short time.

It need hardly be said that the present contribution, including the Table which follows, does not exhaust the sparrow controversy. It leaves many interesting points almost untouched.


During each Month of the Year.

Six hundred and ninety-four dissections have been made in the preparation of the following Table, by various hands, in various places. They have been made at nearly regular intervals—certainly during every month of the year, and I may almost say during every week. It is therefore hoped they will give a reliable idea of what the customary food of sparrows is, and what their occasional food. I confess this latter phrase is somewhat vague, but have felt the necessity of employing it in default of a better. The column under this heading might no doubt be further extended.

Maize has only been entered under two months; but where sparrows have an opportunity of obtaining it, maize would be found in their crops at any time of the year. They will also eat bread, potatoes, rice, pastry, raisins, currants, etc., but as these things have no bearing on the amount of harm which sparrows do to agriculture,[13] they are not included in the Table. Credit must be given to them as scavengers in a small way in our crowded cities, where they consume matter such as I have named, which, if left, would decay and be injurious to health.

Among those who have assisted in the inquiry my thanks are especially due to my father, Mr. A. Willis, Mr. B. B. Sapwell, Mr. G. Roberts, Mr. F. Norgate, Mr. C. L. Buxton, Mr. T. Southwell, Mr. T. E. Gunn, Mr. F. A. Lees, Mr. C. G. Barrett, Mr. H. H. Slater, and Colonel Russell. I have further availed myself of sundry notes published in the Zoologist, by Messrs. Hepburn, Hawley, and Wilson; and some material has been gathered from other scattered sources, which I have particularized in the Table.

Their customary food. Their occasional food.
JANUARY. Corn from stacks and from poultry-yards; seeds of all kinds. Refuse corn, such as is scattered in roads, and would never be of use; maize. Capsules of moss (H. H. Slater).
FEBRUARY. Corn from stacks and poultry-yards. Seeds; buds of gooseberries (G. Roberts).
MARCH. Corn wherever they can get it. Young tops of peas, radish, cabbage, and cauliflower; seeds (Wilson); freshly sown barley and oats.
APRIL. Corn; vegetable matter. Freshly sown barley and oats; oblong green seeds, not identified; caterpillars.
MAY. Corn; vegetable matter; seeds. Young pea-pods and leaves of peas; gooseberry-blossoms and young gooseberries; small beetles; caterpillars of the Brimstone Moth, and White Cabbage butterflies (J. Hawley); turnip-seed (A. Hepburn and R. Lowe); hayseed (C. L. Buxton); sprouts of young barley, half an inch long; pollen of the sycamore tree and apple (Note A, page 17); mangold-wurtzel leaves (B. B. Sapwell).
JUNE. Corn; vegetable matter; peas; seeds of various sorts. Gooseberries and other fruit; lettuces (A. Willis); small beetles; mangold-wurtzel leaves (B. B. Sapwell) (Note B, page 18).
JULY. Young wheat, barley, and oats; vegetable matter; seeds of various weeds. Peas; small beetles; beans (A. Willis); seeds of wild spinach (A. Willis).
AUGUST. Wheat, barley, oats. Seeds of corn, bindweed, knot grass, etc. (see list, page 9); aphides, small beetles, daddy longlegs (Tipula), caterpillars of Teras contaminana, moth of Crambus culmellus (Note C, page 18) (E. F. Becher and F. Norgate).
SEPTEMBER. Corn; seeds of many kinds, especailly the knot grass and corn bindweed. Caterpillars; berries; seeds of plantain (T. Southwell).
OCTOBER. Grain, some of it refuse grain; seeds of many kinds, including knot grass.
NOVEMBER. Grain; seeds of plants. Newly sown seeds of wheat; small caterpillars.
DECEMBER. Grain, principally obtained from stacks. Seeds; maize. Sprouting bean (H. H. Slater).



Their customary food. Their occasional food.
MAY. Grains of last year's corn; small beetles; caterpillars. Buds (F. Norgate).
Red spider (J.H.G.)
Hairworms (J.H.G.)
Small flies (J. H.G.).
JUNE. Caterpillars of various kinds, up to three-quarters of an inch in length; young wheat. Beetles; large brown cabbage-moth (W. Johns); wireworm.
JULY. Caterpillars, beetles; soft, milky grains of wheat and barley. Blue-bottle flies (J. Duff).
AUGUST. Caterpillars, beetles; young corn. Small chrysalides.

To give a summary of this Table in a few words, it may be said that about 75% of an adult sparrow's food during its life is corn of some kind. The remaining 25% may be roughly divided as follows:

Seeds of weeds   10 %
Green Peas 4
Beetles 3
Caterpillars 2
Insects which fly 1
Other things 5

In young sparrows not more than 40% is corn, while about 40% consists of caterpillars, and 10% of small beetles. This is up to the age of sixteen days. Where green peas abound, as in market gardens, they form a much larger proportion of the sparrows' food than the 4% here stated.

Sparrows generally contain in their gizzards a considerable quantity of small stones, gravel, sand, brick, coal, etc., but these are only intended to grind the real food. In default of these substances they will swallow small mollusks, fragments of egg-shell, fragments of snail-shells, etc.

Sparrows should be killed for dissection in the afternoon. In adult sparrows the crop will generally give a far better idea of their day's meal than the gizzard, in which the food is so comminuted as to be with difficulty identified. If the sparrows are caught at night, they have digested their food in a great measure, and yield much less satisfactory results: the crops at that time are always empty.


It seems that the actual blossom is not eaten, but rather that a portion of it is masticated for the drop of nectar at the base of the petals. For the same reason the crocus and other garden flowers alluded to at p. 1 (note) are destroyed. The blossoms of fruit-trees seem to be attacked for the pollen.


Mr. R. Lowe has observed them feeding on the young unopened buds of swede turnips just bursting into flower for seed.—(Report on Observations on Injurious Insects, 1883.)


I have notes of sparrows occasionally feeding on the yellow Underwing, Ermine moth, and a few other insects in the perfect state, but the date at which the observation was made not having been taken down, it can only be approximately guessed at from the time at which they usually appear. Everybody must, at some time or another, have observed their clumsy efforts to catch some common butterfly.


Peascod, emptied by a sparrow.

  1. Besides eating peas frequently and gooseberries occasionally, sparrows have an evil propensity for picking flowers to pieces, including the crocus, dahlia, polyanthus, hepatica, heartsease, and wistaria.
  2. Active measures appear to have been taken in that neighbourhood for reducing the number of sparrows. The following notices, in large letters, were posted up:—

    'Wirral Farmers' Club. Notice.—Sixpence per dozen heads of Sparrows (until the end of March) will be given to anyone producing them to Mr. ——. Address: ——.'

    I understand that the result was that several thousand sparrows forfeited their lives.

  3. Some people are to be found who will even stand up for the ring-dove or wood-pigeon—a greater pest than the sparrow.
  4. But the nearly allied tree-sparrow (Passer montanus) is a well-known migrant.
  5. Mr. B. B. Sapwell remarks that when a stack has been threshed ever so far away from the yard, the sparrows in the yard have always had their crops full of the grain (in litt.)
  6. An instance of young sparrows being fed on water-beetles occurred at the beginning of August, 1884. My father ordered a pond to be cleaned out, at the bottom of which were a great many small water-beetles; these, the gardener tells me, were eagerly collected by sparrows, ten or twelve at a time carrying mouths-full of them away to feed their young with in the adjacent nests.
  7. Colonel Russell says he has known young sparrows to be fed with ripe wheat, which he was able to prove the old birds had to go half a mile for.—'Field,' June 22nd, 1878.
  8. Several Continental naturalists include the cockchafer in the sparrow's food; but I think that most likely the 'chovy' (Phyllopertha) is intended as well. Professor Newton (Yarrell, British Birds, part x., p. 92) and Mr. H. Stevenson (Birds of Norfolk, i., p. 211) tell us that the sparrow eats 'chovies,' P. horticola, and the former says he has seen their mouths literally crammed with them; and Mr. John Curtis says that he has known of sparrows gorging themselves to such an extent with 'chovies' as to be unable to fly (Farm Insects, pp. 220, 510). Prof. Newton says it begins to come out of the ground towards the end of May, and the perfect insect carries on its ravages until July (Prof. Newton, In litt.).
  9. In litt.
  10. In litt.
  11. 'British Birds,' i., p. 344
  12. In litt.
  13. If the pigs have barley-meal they rob them of some of it, as well as any other food which is given to them.