The house sparrow (Passer domesticus) was first introduced to the United States in 1851, and since then they have spread from north to south and coast to coast. These birds share our rural, urban, and suburban environments and most of us will spot them on a daily basis. House sparrows are very often seen in pairs, and there is quite a marked difference between the sexes. So how do birdwatchers know which birds are female and which birds are male?
House sparrow females look very drab when compared with males. In fact, you could even be forgiven for mistaking them for separate species! Female house sparrows lack the rich brown and black back, grey cap, white cheeks, and black throat and eye of the males.
Distinguishing female house sparrows from males by sight is easy, but there are other behavioral differences that are helpful and interesting to observe too. Male and female house sparrows have different nesting and calling behaviors, for example.
You don’t always have to travel to the great outdoors or exotic locations to enjoy the fascination of birdwatching. Continue reading this article to learn more about a bird you probably know pretty well, the female house sparrow.
Close up of a perched female house sparrow
House sparrows are sexually dimorphic when mature. This means there is an obvious physical difference between males and females. As is common in finches, sparrows, and other seed-eaters, it is the male who is more boldly marked.
The most obvious physical difference between male and female house sparrows lies in the coloration and markings around the head and back. Female house sparrows lack the bold grey, black, and chestnut markings of the male. Males also have a white bar on the shoulder that stands out against the rufous-brown wing color.
Distinguishing between female house sparrows and juvenile males can pose more of a challenge, but careful observation of the color of the throat, belly, and underparts can usually solve this problem. Juvenile male house sparrows tend to be darker below, have paler upper parts, and a paler bill.
Read on for more details on identifying the female house sparrow.
Female House Sparrow
Male House Sparrow
Female house sparrows are small, stocky birds that appear buffy brown above and grayish or brownish below. Their plumage is better for camouflage than it is for attracting a mate. Female house sparrows are pretty dull-looking creatures to the casual observer, but if you look a little closer, there are some distinctive features to be seen.
The upper parts of the female house sparrow are buffy brown in color with some darker markings on the back and wings. Female house sparrows have a brown cap and a cream-colored stripe (known as a supercilium) that passes from in front of the eye to the back of the head. There is a darker stripe bordering the bottom edge of the supercilium. The belly, legs, and bill are brownish although the base of the bill is yellowish.
Female house sparrows have very similar plumage to juveniles of the species but have a neater appearance, and are darker above and lighter below. Female house sparrows are also similar in appearance to some other North American seed-eaters like the non-breeding longspurs, dickcissels, finches, and other sparrow species.
Female House Sparrow perched on a branch
Female house sparrows are slightly smaller than males. The difference is barely noticeable in the field, however. House sparrows measure about 5.9-6.7 inches (15-17 cm) in length and have a wingspan of 7.5-9.8 inches (19-25cm). These birds weigh in at 0.9-1.1 ounces (27-30g).
House sparrows are most often seen in pairs and flocks. Both sexes forage in the same way, by hopping around in search of animal feed, birdseed, grain, food scraps, and insects. There are some interesting behavioral differences between the sexes, however. Read on to learn more.
Female house sparrows invite mating by crouching, lowering and shivering their wings, and pulling back their heads. The male house sparrow signals his intentions with a more upright posture and an erect tail, but with the same lowered and shivering wings.
Female house sparrows are not as particular about their personal space as males are. They will tolerate other females at a closer distance than males will allow other males. Studies have shown that these distances decrease when the birds are cold or hungry, however.
Both male and female house sparrows are territorial around their nest site, and neither sex will shy away from defending their territory from other house sparrows. Interestingly, female house sparrows will generally chase off unwelcome female intruders, while males will defend against other males.
Male (left) and right (female) house sparrows
House sparrows have a very familiar, but rather unimpressive song consisting of a single ‘cheep’ note. They also have a variety of calls including churring and chattering sounds made between partners, in agitation, and to signal danger.
The male house sparrow is far more vocal than the female and uses his song to attract a mate. Female house sparrows do call, however. Female house sparrows will call to attract a new male if her partner dies. She will also produce chattering calls to ward off other females or when otherwise agitated.
A female house sparrow gathering nesting materials
Both male and female house sparrows are involved in nest construction, which takes place predominantly between February and May. The female house sparrow focuses more on lining the nest with soft materials than the male, however.
House sparrows produce multiple broods each year. They typically produce two or three clutches, and sometimes even a fourth. Only the female develops an incubation patch although both sexes are responsible for incubation.
For the first few days, the female house sparrow does the majority of nest sitting, but the male becomes far more involved during the second week. Once the eggs have hatched, both parents continue to brood the chicks during the day, although it is the female who spends the night with the chicks.
Both male and female house sparrows feed the growing chicks, but the female brings food about 60% of the time. Insects are the most important component of the house sparrow nestling diet.
A nesting pair of house sparrows, with the male outside the hole, and the female sat on the nest
The female house sparrow does a little more than the male but both parents are very involved in incubating the eggs and caring for the chicks. It is therefore unlikely that a female house sparrow would succeed in raising her young without the help of her partner.
Female house sparrows have been found to be dominant over males at certain times of the year, but the data is often conflicting. The females are not particularly aggressive birds, but they have been known to push eggs out of other birds' nests and kill chicks when looking to take over a nest site. House sparrows have also been known to steal food from native birds like American robins.
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