Sparrows primarily belong to the genus Passer of the family Passeridae, which contains 28 species of true sparrows. The most common sparrow is the House sparrow which is one of the most common species of birds on the planet. Sparrows are small, compact and agile birds, but what do sparrows eat?
Whilst technically omnivores, sparrows mostly eat seeds and grains, as well as some berries. Resultantly, sparrows are sometimes classed as granivores. Most sparrows are not fussy eaters, and they also consume a wide range of insects, including beetles, caterpillars, spiders, flies and aphids. They’ll also forage what they can from discarded human food and rubbish.
Sparrows are adaptable and flexible birds, which is partly why they’ve become so successful. They’re often defined as producer-scrounger feeders, which means that they either forage food actively by searching for it themselves or scrounge it once food is ‘discovered’ by other sparrows or even other species of birds.
Read on to learn more about the diet and feeding behaviours of these highly successful birds!
Sparrow eating a caterpillar
A sparrow’s winter diet consists of almost 90% grains and seeds. Sparrows are a very common sight amongst garden bird feeders in the winter months and will generally try and forage what they can without expending too much energy doing so.
Insect life is less abundant in winter, meaning sparrows and other birds tend to turn to static food sources like seeds.
Not all sparrows experience much of a winter. The Sudan golden sparrow, Somali sparrow, Parrot-billed sparrow, Great sparrow and Northern grey-headed sparrow all live in Africa, for example, where winters are very mild or almost totally non-existent. Some species of sparrows, including most North American sparrows, migrate south during the winter in pursuit of warmer food-abundant environments.
In winter, when food is scarce, many sparrows use a type of dominance hierarchy to take it in turns to feed. In House sparrows, dominance is indicated by a throat patch; any fights over food are likely settled by showing this patch.
Sparrows eating seeds and grains from a bird feeder in winter
In summer, insect life is more abundant in the upper Northern Hemisphere at least. As such, sparrows, as well as most other birds and many other animals, increase their insect consumption.
Sparrows in summer eat a vast range of invertebrates, primarily insects. Beetles, caterpillars, flies, spiders and aphids are all popular choices.
Other arthropods, such as molluscs, are also taken by sparrows in summer, as are earthworms. Some studies even found that sparrows pursue small vertebrates such as tiny frogs and lizards.
Juvenile Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) foraging on the ground for insects and seeds
Sparrows are flexible when it comes to foraging food. They tend to opt for the easiest options, like foraging from bird feeders, fields or exposed industrial grain.
Sparrows are often defined as producer-scrounger feeders. As producers, they forage their own food by actively scavenging the ground for seeds and invertebrates. As scroungers, they follow either other birds or other sparrows and simply join in. Scrounging is more likely around open feeding sites, e.g. farmer’s fields.
Sparrows do catch insects in the air, too - they’re no slouch when it comes to hunting and foraging, but they don’t need to put in a tremendous amount of effort to sustain themselves.
Baby sparrows are almost solely fed with insects for around two weeks at least. Studies of the House sparrow and American and Eurasian tree sparrows found that baby sparrow diets’ consisted of around 70% to 90% insects for 10 to 18 days.
The parents then introduce harder foods such as seeds and grains. Both parents feed the young, but the male tends to take over once the chicks have fledged, as the female then starts to prepare for the next brood.
Recently fledged sparrow chicks begging for food
The best way to attract sparrows to gardens is to place feeders with bird seed. Millet, milo and sunflower seeds are all excellent choices. Eurasian tree sparrows also seem to have a fondness for peanuts.
Fresh water also attracts sparrows and other birds. Sparrows will feed on bird feeders and tables, but they often prefer to feed on the floor, so make sure you scatter bird seeds across your patio or lawn too.
Sparrows will gorge upon any typical commercial bird seed mix containing any or all of the following:
Sparrows will also eat various waste foods including both meat and vegetables - they’re not fussy when it comes to human leftovers. Mealworms are an excellent choice in summer and will help sparrows feed their chicks. Suet is another solid choice, especially in winter.
Eurasian Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus) at bird feeder, feeding on peanuts
Generally speaking, sparrows favourite foods tend to be either sunflower seeds, millet or peanuts, as well as mealworms.
Sparrows are great seedeaters and will consume any and all seeds or grain. They’re generally not fussy and will gorge themselves on most standard commercial bird seed mixes.
Sparrows will eat most foods, but like any bird, they shouldn’t be overfed on bread.
Bread is not toxic or harmful in itself, but it’s nutritionally incomplete whilst also being very filling! A bird that fills up on bread won’t forage the other more nutritious foods that help ensure their survival.
Beyond that, mouldy bread is a big no-no. Not only is mould toxic, but it will also blight the feeding area for other wildlife. There are other foods that are toxic to birds, like chocolate and avocado. Any highly processed foods high in salt and sugar should also be avoided.
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) perched in a tree
There is nothing wrong with feeding sparrows and other garden birds. We actively encourage feeding birds all year round. Wild animal food shortages are likely caused by human behaviour, so it is our responsibility to assist where we can.
Commercial bird seed especially is cheap and very easy to administer to birds via a bird table and bird feeder. It’s absolutely good to feed sparrows and other garden birds!
Sparrows will feed on most garden bird feeders and bird tables, so long as there are no real threats or competitors around. Many sparrows, including the House sparrow, do prefer to feed on the ground, though.
There are many birds that prefer to feed on the ground rather than from any feeder. Make sure you spread seeds liberally on the ground to cater for ground-feeding birds, including sparrows!
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) feeding on seeds from a bird feeder
Sparrows drink water and will sip it from practically any reasonably clean source. Providing birds with regular clean drinking water is a great way to attract more birds to your garden.
In summer, sparrows get most of their water supplies from seeds, berries and insects, but in winter, they often travel to find water sources.
Female House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) drinking water from a birdbath
As small birds, sparrows are predated by a huge range of animals and even some insects.
Sparrows eat a wide range of insects and other invertebrates, particularly in summer, including flies, spiders, earthworms, caterpillars, larvae, centipedes, crickets, millipedes, snails, slugs and beetles.
The typical diet of a House sparrow in the UK contains all types of seeds and grains as well as insects and invertebrates. House sparrows will eat any commercial bird seeds as well as suet and mealworms.
Yes, sparrows eat crickets and grasshoppers.
Sparrow eating insects
Sparrows certainly eat berries and will forage the seeds of most varieties of fruit.
It’s ok to feed birds rice, but it isn’t the greatest meal, though it can still supplement birds in the winter months.
Sparrows can really benefit from mealworms as they’re high in fat and energy. Sparrows prefer to feed their chicks on softer insects and invertebrates like worms, so mealworm is helpful there too.
A sparrow feasting on some mealworms
Sparrows will certainly scavenge food from apples or other typical fruits. Apples are an excellent food for most birds but must be broken up into smaller pieces.
Sure, but bread isn’t very nutritional and can do birds more harm than good. Limit how much bread you feed birds, or opt for more nutritious wholemeal and seeded varieties.
Sparrows will forage vegetables, including lettuce and leafy greens. Vegetable scraps provide a nutritious meal for many birds.
Eurasian Tree Sparrow (passer montanus) feeding chick on a branch
Sparrows are flexible, but they do often prefer to feed on the ground. In the garden, it’s quite common to see sparrows feed on the ground away from other birds.
Sunflower seeds are an excellent all-rounder for feeding sparrows are pretty much any other species of bird.
Yes, sparrows forage worms whenever possible and they make a great soft and high-fat food for their chicks.
They certainly do. Fat balls and suet are particularly good for birds in the winter when high-energy food sources are at a premium.
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