The house sparrow (Passer domesticus) is a bird that most people in the United States are familiar with. Whether hopping around under the table of a coffee shop or enjoying a meal at a backyard bird feeder, these birds have adapted to live alongside humans. Originally from Europe, Asia, and North Africa, house sparrows can now be seen almost everywhere people live and work.
House sparrows are typical seed eaters, but they are not afraid to include some variety in their diet. They will also eat insects, fruits, buds, and other plant parts. This adaptability is a big part of why these birds have been so successful across the globe.
Whether you love them or hate them, knowing what house sparrows eat can be useful for attracting them or keeping them away. Read along as we go in-depth on the diet of one of America’s (and the world’s) most common backyard birds.
A male house sparrow gathering termites to feed the chicks
Wild house sparrows feed on seeds, plant matter, insects, and other small animals. Outside of their original distribution, house sparrows are human-commensal, or anthro-dependent, which means they generally rely on humans to survive. They have adapted to exploit food sources that we provide to them either directly, or indirectly.
Outside of urban areas, house sparrows feed largely on animal feeds composed of grains like sorghum, cracked corn, wheat, and oats. House sparrows are rarely seen in wilderness areas, but presumably, they are able to subsist on wild food sources like grass seeds and insects in their native environment.
Read on to learn more about when and how house sparrows feed.
House sparrows need to eat many times every day to maintain their metabolism. In fact, small birds like sparrows need to eat as much as half their own body weight each day.
The amount of food a house sparrow needs to eat varies depending on the quality of the food source, and the weather. In the winter when it’s cold out, these birds will need to eat more frequently to maintain their body temperature.
House Sparrow with a beak full of mealworms
House sparrows forage for food on the ground most of the time. These birds hop around actively searching for seeds and other sources of food. Living in such close association with humans has taught them where they are most likely to find scraps, animal feeds, and birdseed.
House sparrows are adaptable and opportunistic birds. You might spot house sparrows tearing into flowers or getting a meal up in the branches of a tree. House sparrows know that where people eat, food scraps are sure to end up on the ground, so they often hang around restaurants and park benches.
House sparrows are frequent visitors to backyard bird feeders, although they are not always welcome. These birds are highly successful in the urban and suburban landscape because they are able to capitalize on the food we put out for them and other birds. They will feed on a variety of feeder types and also pick up seeds that have fallen to the ground below feeders.
A House Sparrow feeding from a bird feeder
House sparrows are diurnal birds that do almost all of their foraging during the daylight hours. Interestingly, some smart house sparrows have figured out that bugs are easy to catch around lights in the evening, but this isn’t typical behavior for the species.
Continue reading to learn more about what house sparrows eat.
The results of an extensive study done in the central and eastern parts of the United States showed that the winter house sparrow diet consists of 41% seeds from weeds and wild grasses and 59% grains from animal feeds.
House Sparrow feeding on seeds
Insects form a much more important component of the house sparrow diet in summer than they do in winter. This is probably largely because they are so much easier to come by at this time of year. In addition to seeds and scraps, American studies have shown that as much as 10% of the house sparrow diet in summer is made up of insects.
Baby house sparrows are fed a high-protein diet of insects and seeds. For the first 3 days after hatching 90% of their diet consists of insects. These include fly larvae, weevils, grasshoppers, and caterpillars. As they get older, plant material becomes more and more important in their diet.
Close up of a male house sparrow feeding fledglings
House sparrows are not all that picky about what they’ll eat. They certainly seem to have their favorites though! Put out the following food sources if you want to feed house sparrows:
Birdseed is the best thing to feed house sparrows, but they will also enjoy meal worms, especially during the breeding season. Adults will probably use this food source to feed their young, although they will also be quite happy to dine on these high-protein snacks themselves.
House sparrows drink water. They will visit bird baths and bowls but also drink from gutters, puddles, and water features, as well as ponds, streams, and lakes.
Female House Sparrow taking a drink of water
House sparrows can be attracted to various styles of bird feeders or by simply spreading food on the ground. These adaptable little birds are also very happy to nest in small nest boxes, often to the disappointment of birdwatchers hoping to attract native species like bluebirds and tree swallows!
House sparrows eat a variety of seeds. They will harvest seeds from weeds when necessary but they also take advantage of birdseed at backyard bird feeders. The most common seeds in garden bird mixes include sunflower seeds, cracked corn, milo, and millet.
While they may not be a preferred food source, there are reports of house sparrows feeding on safflower seeds. If you want to discourage house sparrows, putting out safflower seeds might send them looking elsewhere.
House sparrows love sunflower seeds. They prefer hulled and black oil sunflower seeds because these types are easy to feed on. The larger striped sunflower seeds have thicker shells that house sparrows find difficult to crack.
Nyjer seed is another food source that house sparrows will take advantage of if nothing else is available. Try putting out a nyjer seed bird feeder to discourage house sparrows.
House sparrows enjoy hearted peanuts but they can struggle with whole peanuts in their shells because of the size of this food source.
A small flock of house sparrows perched on a branch
Nyjer seed is often sold as ‘thistle’ seed because it does not have the invasive tendencies of genuine thistle. House sparrows will eat these fine seeds when available, although it is not a preferred food source.
House sparrows will happily feed on both dried and live mealworms. Insects are an important component of the house sparrow diet, particularly during the summer months. House sparrows will probably also use dried mealworms as a food source to feed their chicks.
House sparrows get as much as 10% of their daily food intake from insects in the summer. This is a seasonal food source, however, and very few insects are eaten in the winter.
Insects are a very important summer food source for house sparrows. These birds most certainly do feed on ants and would likely enjoy dried ants when available.
Do you have a question about this topic that we haven't answered? Submit it below, and one of our experts will answer as soon as they can.
Get the latest BirdFacts delivered straight to your inbox