House sparrows: When feathers fly

Extramarital affairs, macho posturing and even murder - Dominic Couzens explores the turbulent private life of the house sparrow. 

A
a
-
Sparrows article spread

Extramarital affairs, macho posturing and even murder - Dominic Couzens explores the turbulent private life of the house sparrow. 


There are many ways to describe the house sparrow. It has been called cheeky, quick-witted, pugnacious, perky, impudent, bustling and, frequently, humble. Often it is simply said to be ‘common’ – a reference both to the species’ abundance and its perceived lowly position in life.
 
In north-west England, people have taken to calling it the ‘brown budgie’; it is also known as the spuggy, spudgie or sprog. Everybody, it seems, has their own word for the sparrow.
 
Perhaps it is a little overindulgent of me to ascribe yet another characteristic to a bird that has already suffered a surfeit of characterisation… but how about ‘messy’? Could this be the best way to describe this fascinating bird?
 
Shabby chic
 
Let’s start by stating the obvious: the house sparrow is not the best turned out of birds. Its feathers can seem loose-fitting: the belly plumage in particular often hangs down, as if the bird has forgotten to tuck its shirt in. It can look as grimy as the city streets in which it often lives.
 
Yet, oddly, the house sparrow is really quite handsome, decked out in black, white, grey and a whole spectrum of browns. It’s just that it never looks its best – like a good-looking bloke who dresses shabbily.
 
Untidy home
 
Much the same applies to the house sparrow’s nest. This is actually quite an impressive construction: a bulky dome of grass and straw, usually placed inside a crevice or hole, but sometimes free-standing inside a tree or shrub.
 
The inclusion of a roof should score points for effort but, once again, its appeal is undermined by a lack of attention to detail. One gets the impression that the birds have stuffed in their building material without any thought, and some city dwellers make matters worse by adding rubbish such as paper or bits of cloth.
 
This superficial messiness is underscored by another kind entirely, one that is rampant in the house sparrow’s life. If we can use the word ‘messy’ to describe a human life full of fractured and fractious relationships, straying partners and brief encounters, then we can do the same with the house sparrow.
 
Birds of a feather
 
House sparrows mate for life, like many bird species. But they are fairly unusual in that the male and female live in each other’s pockets all year round. This model of stability is echoed in their wider social life.
 
Each pair lives within a loose colony of, say, 10–20 birds, and all of the pairs and unattached members of the colony know each other well and undertake many of life’s chores – foraging, preening, dust-bathing and roosting – together.
 
It is an unusually intimate existence and seems blissful – from the outside. Sparrow pairs work well together. The male builds most of the nest and defends a small territory around it, his mate incubates the eggs and broods their chicks, and both parents feed the hungry offspring.
 
But this is only half of the story. The colony offers countless opportunities for secret liaisons. Far from being random encounters, these affairs are carefully plotted – but more of that later.
 
Paternity tests
 
DNA fingerprinting studies have shown that many of the nestlings in house sparrow colonies are the result of such ‘extra-pair copulation’ (or EPC, to use the scientists’ shorthand). Between 10 and 20 per cent of the young are fed by a male to whom they are not related. Both sexes routinely cheat on their partners, while still working together to help raise their own brood.
 
One study of promiscuity in house sparrows came to a thoroughly politically incorrect conclusion. A government report into the social conditions in a London tower block happened to be commissioned at the same time that the building’s house sparrows were being monitored.
 
The researchers found that the proportion of children born out of wedlock in the high-rise estate was 15 per cent – the same EPC rate as that among the baby sparrows living on the ledges outside.
 
Badges of dishonour
 
Though there are definite similarities between the lives of humans and sparrows, I have come to the conclusion that the main difference between our world and theirs is this: while human sexual attraction becomes more mysterious the more you analyse it (or, at least, the more you read Hello! magazine), sparrow sexual attraction boils down to one thing. It’s all about badges.
 
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here