HistoryHouse Sparrow History

House Sparrow History

– Compiled by Elizabeth Zimmerman Smith

Less than 200 years ago, there were no House Sparrows in NorthAmerica. Now these cosmopolitan birds are one of the most abundant songbirds on the continent,with an estimated 150 million birds established in all 48 states.The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus, or HOSP, sometimes called the English Sparrow, domestic sparrow, gamin, tramp or hoodlum) was originally recorded in Eurasia, North Africa and the Middle East. Accounts differ, but it appears that repeated introductions occurredin various parts of the U.S and Canada.

  • Initially, eight pairs were released in Brooklyn,NY in either 1850 or 1851 bya single person/group of New Yorkers. Apparently they died beforethey could breed.
    • Accounts differ, but it appears that in 1850 Nicholas Pike,Director of the Brooklyn Institute, purchased the first 8pairs of sparrows from Liverpool, England (the cost of the trip was $200 per Barrows). He released the8 pairs in the spring of 1851. They did not”thrive.”
    • The following year (1851) he oversaw purchase of another25 pairs of birds that were released along the East River. (Barrows [1889] reported 100 birds purchased by Pike from England released in fall the 1851 and spring 1852.)
    • The rest wintered under the care of the Brooklyn Institute,and were released in 1853 in Greenwood Cemetery.
    • Birds were released into Central Park (possibly to controlcanker worms infesting the trees [Lyacock 1966, Roots 1976]), Union Square Park, and MadisonSquare Park.
  • In 1854 and 1858, the bird was introduced toPortland Maine.
  • In 1856 or 1857, Carles and Rupert Eaton imported a number of English Sparrows from New York or Massachusetts (not sure which) and set them free in Lower Canard, Nova Scotia. (Piers) They first appeared on Cape Breton island in 1889, and rapidly spread over Nova Scotia. (Birds of Nova Scotia)
  • in 1857, Citizens of New Haven imported someof their own.
  • In 1858 they were released in Peacedale, RI.(McLoughlin indicates that some of the birds destined for Peacedaleescaped in Boston where “they enjoyed a short-lived foothold.”Bostonians later imported more.)
  • During the next decade, HOSP were introducedto eight other cities, including release of 1,000 birdsin Philadelphia by city officials in 1869, and release by J.M. Brown of two pairs at Galveston, Texas.
  • By 1870, they were established as far southas Columbia SC and Galveston TX, as far west as DavenportIowa, and as far north as Montreal Canada.
  • Released in San Francisco 1871-1872, and Salt Lake City 1873-1874.
  • Nine birds from New Zealand were introduced in Hawaii in 1871, and HOSP are now found on the main islands.
  • Between 1872-1874, the Cincinnati AcclimatizationSociety released 4,000 Europeansongbirds of at least 18 different species, including House Sparrowsand starlings, in order to “aid people against the encroachmentof insects” and ensure that the “ennobling influence ofthe song of birds will be felt by the inhabitants.” Only the starlingand the House Sparrow took hold.
  • English Sparrows were introduced at Saint Paul, Minn. as early as the fall of 1876; bit om 1889, there were still so few that they were seldom noticed. This kind of delayed population build up results in people not realizing the long-term consequences of introductions of non-native species. (The English Sparrow In North America, 1889)
  • According to McLoughlin, “Sparrows hadbecome an American fad. Breeders sprang up to supply the newmarket for the birds,… releasing birds into areas preclearedof predators and provided with nesting boxes. In the cities ofthe new nation the sparrows found an earthly heaven. The everpresent horse droppings, livestock and poultry feed, and generalgarbage, coupled with the vast fields of grain surrounding thecities, made these formerly sparrowless places perfect breedinggrounds for the invaders.” “Countless private citizens contributedto the spread of House Sparrows by trapping acclimated birdsand releasing them” in Texas, Ohio, Utah, Missouri and Georgia.By 1875, the House Sparrow was breeding in San Francisco. Overa period of 11 years, the range of the House Sparrow expandedfrom a few thousand kilometers in 1875 by more than 1,340,000square kilometers.
  • “Sparrow War” was a popular termfor the spirited debate over the merits and demerits-economicand aesthetic-of the HOSP.  The debate, which lasted a longtime and was fiercely fought by American ornithologists and others,reached its height in Massachusetts during the winter of 1877-78.(Terres)
  • They were introduced from Europe to San Franciscoand Salt Lake City in 1873-1874.
  • Other introductions occurred,and birds were collected and transported to other parts ofthe country. Some may have traveledwest in boxcars filled with grain. House Sparrows have alsobeen introduced (either on purpose or accidentally) in Jamaica (between 1903 and 1966), the Virgin Islands (since 1954), Cuba(1850? late 1890s?), Brazil and Venezuela (1872), the Falkland Islands (asstowaways in sheep pens), Australia (1863-1872), New Zealand(1860s), the Bahamas (1875), Bermudas, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Greenland, and southern Africa(stowed away on ships), and the main islands of Hawaii (9 birds introduced in 1871 from New Zealand), and Puerto Rico (1978). They are also found in China.
  • An 1883 article in The Messenger (Indiana, PA, 06/27/83) said “The little sparrow has been declared an outlaw by legislative enactment and they can be killed at any time. They were imported into this country from Europe some years ago as a destroyer of insects, but it has been found they are not insectivorous. Besides they drive away all our native song birds and give no equivalent. Let them all be killed.”
  • By 1887, some states had already initiatedefforts to eradicate HOSPs. Statessuch as Illinois (1891-1895) and Michigan (1887-1895) establishedbounty programs. According to Keith Kridler, since the bounty on “English” Sparrows was only a few cents per bird in many states, young children killed these birds to earn money for “hard candy.” The children quickly learned to wait for the eggs to hatch and thus quadruple their bounty. County clerks often felt sorry for these children, and paid out the bounty Farmers bulletin on house sparrow control from 1912on any species of sparrow. A 3/16/1892 article in an Indiana PA paper stated “The different county treasurers of Illinois have paid out in round figures $8,000 as bounty money under a law allowing 2 cents for the head of each sparrow killed during December, January and February in that State. This shows that about 450,000 sparrows were killed, but the frisky bird seems more numerous than ever.”
  • On 09/06/1888, The Cartersville Courant-American newspaper noted “The English Sparrow, with its grown and growing progeny, is a conspicuous nuisance. Can there be no way devised to abate him, if not totally, at least partially?
  • In 1889, in “The English Sparrow in North America Especially Its Relations to Agriculture,” Walter B. Barrows recommended the formation of “Sparrow Clubs” with the objective of destroying HOSP via concerted action, offering prizes, etc.
  • In 1903, W.L. Dawson wrote “Withoutquestion the most deplorable event in the history of Americanornithology was the introduction of the English Sparrow.” (TheBirds of Ohio, 1903)
  • In 1904, Chester A. Reed wrote “These birds, which were imported from Europe, have increased so rapidly that they have overrun the cities and villages of the country and are doing inestimable damage both by driving out the native insect eating birds and by their own destructiveness. They nest in all sorts of places but preferably behind blinds, where their unsightly masses of straw protrude from between the slats, and their droppings besmirch the buildings below; they breed at all seasons of the year, eggs having often been found in January, with several feet of snow on the ground and the mercury below zero.” (North American Birds Eggs)
  • In 1910, “How to Destroy House Sparrows” was published as Farmer’s Bulletin 383, by author Ned Dearborn. It noted that “the bad qualities of the bird far outweigh its good ones, and, although its extermination is impracticable, a reduction of its numbers is feasible and important. The present bulletin aims to describe the best methods of destruction,” and offered plans for traps, along with tips on shooting and poisoning house sparrows.
  • The English Sparrow As a Pest” Farmers Bulletin #493, by USDA noted they eat more than half their own weight in grain or other food a day. It contained recipe for House Sparrows. (the bulletin was updated in 1912, and 1917.)
  • The Agriculture Library (1912) containsa chapter entitled How to Destroy English Sparrows.
  • Date? A Pennsylvania law was promulgated makingit desirable to “kill or in any way destroy” English sparrows.
  • In 1917, Birds of America noted “The filthy habits of these birds are most annoying. They gather in immense flocks to roost...” and defile houses and cisterns with excrement and nesting materials. “As a flock of fifty Sparrows requires daily the equivalent of a quart of wheat, the annual loss caused by these birds throughout the country is very great.”
  • Sparrow trap sold by Joseph H. Dodson, drawing from his pamphlet "Your Bird Friends and How to Win Them," 1928In 1928, Joseph H. Dodson, bird lover and bird house and sparrow trap manufacturer (patented in 1906?), wrote “The English Sparrow must go. The bird has wrought a great deal of evil to our country chiefly by its activity in driving away native songbirds….We imported the English Sparrow-that was not Nature’s fault. We should rectify our error, drive out the English Sparrow, work together and bring back our native song birds.”
  • In 1931, an updated booklet on English Sparrow Control was published by the USDA (leaflet No.61.) It noted that “complete success in control operations can not be expected unless at the same time an effort is made to remove the conditions that attract the birds.”
  • By 1943, the population growth from the original 50 pairs in 1853 to a continental population was estimated at 150,000,000 birds (Wing 1943).
  • They were introduced to Puerto Rico as recently as 1978?

Reasons given for introduction were to establish wildlife familiarto European immigrants, or to control insect infestations. However,in agriculturalareas, an average of 60% of the House Sparrows’ diet consistsof livestock feed (corn, wheat, oats, etc.), 18% cereals (grainsfrom fields and in storage), 17% weed seeds, and only 4% from insects. Urbanbirds tend to eat more commercial birdseed, weed seed (e.g., crabgrass),and human scraps. The diet of nestlings may be up to 70% animalfood to encourage rapid growth (McLoughlin). They also drive awayother insect eating birds. Since bluebirds did not exist in Europe,they would not have recognized the interference that would result.HOSP have also displaced cliff and Tree Swallows and purple martins.

After being introduced, HOSP thrived in areas occupied by humans,eating grain that was left on the ground, undigested grain in horsemanure, and trash. HOSP populations may have peaked inthe early 1900s. When automobiles and farm machinery replaced horsesand farm animals, the HOSPs primary source of food was reduced.

There is research evidence that HOSP populations are decliningin both rural and urban habitats in Europe (e.g., 60% decline since 1970s in England) but no one has yet determined why. BreedingBird Survey data also indicate that the population is decliningin the Maritime provinces and in the eastern and central UnitedStates. Possible reasons that have been proposed are changing agriculturalpractices such as a shift to monoculture crop plantings and sealinggrain stores to reduce access and spillage; increasedpollution; use of herbicides/pesticides (and its impact on food sources – HOSP nestlings are exclusively fed invertebrates for the first four days of their life); destruction and/or damageof natural habitats; loss of nest sites; feral cat and hawk predation; and nestling starvation(due to lack of availability of insects, especially for later nestings), adult starvation during winter months (HOSP don’t build up fat reserves during winter, perhaps allowing them to escape predation, but making them more vulnerable to a reduced food supply), or infection. A 2006 BBC report indicated that hundreds of birds sparrows, chaffinches and goldfinches are dying England and Wales from trichomoniasis, a parasite that poses no risks to humans but causes lethargy and death within 3 weeks. However, the 2004 Audubon “State of the Birds” reported that nearly 30% of all bird species in the continental U.S. and Canada are in serious decline, primarily due to loss of habitat. So if House Sparrow populations are actually in decline in the U.S., as they are in England, they are not alone.

Unfortunately HOSP are not the only songbird in decline. Changed practices have probably impacted populations, but any HOSP decline may be more noticeable than that of other birds because their numbers were so large. With the proliferationof fast food restaurants and stores such as Home Depot (withan almost endless supply of bird seed, water and nesting areas); homeowners who feed inexpensive bird seed mixes containingmillet and cracked corn; and people or businesses who leave food waste out, House Sparrows should continue to be ubiquitous in the U.S.


Invasive/nuisance species like House Sparrows generally share the following characteristicsthat enable their populations to explode.

  • Reproduce rapidly: HOSPare prolific breeders. They may raise 2-5 (average of 3) clutchesof 3-7 (very seldom less than 4) chicks each breeding season, (averaging 20 chicks perseason). One pair can theoretically quintuple the populationin one year. Using some conservativeassumptions,one pair could increase to 1,250 birds in 5 years. Both sexes work to quickly build a nest. Eggs are incubatedfor 10-16 days, and nestlings are fully feathered in 15-17 days. JC McLoughlin did note that more than half of all adult House Sparrow deaths occur during the three month breeding period due to increased exposure and energy drain.
  • Effective dispersalmechanisms: HOSPhave no recognized migration pattern, but flocks of juvenilesand non-breeding adults may move 1-5 miles to new feeding areas, or they may fly a mile or more in late summer and early autumn to roost with a flock.Human intervention in terms of multiple introductions was a majorfactor in dispersal. Not being exposed to the perils associatedwith migration might actually increase their survival rate.
  • Rapidly and easilyestablished: HOSPsare fairly hardy birds. Unlike many birds, they eat a widerange of foods (over 830 kinds), including grain, seed (wildand in feeders), human food waste, insects and spiders (fedto nestlings), and, less frequently, tree buds, fruit and vegetables.They live near humans, which provides a ready source of foodand nesting sites. (HOSP are not usually found in dense forests(especially deciduous), grasslands, alpine regions and deserts.) Whilethey prefer to nest in cavities such as a nestbox, they willnest in protected locations such as rafters, gutters, roofs,ledges, eaves, soffits and attic vents, dryer vents, holesin wood siding, behind shake siding, dense vines on buildings,loading docks, roof supports, commercial signs, behind or abovepipes and duct work on buildings, wall voids, evergreens andshrubs, nests of cliff swallows and northern orioles, and evenalongside osprey nests. Nests are often in 8-30 feet off theground, which may afford additional predator protection. Unlikebluebirds or Tree Swallows, they will nest in close proximityto others of their species. They also build nests very quicklyand will reuse nests. Their gregarious habits and foragingin small flocks may avoid predation. In between feeding, theyrest in thickets, brush piles or evergreen stands which provideprotection from predators and wind. House Sparrows reportedly lived and bred in the Frickley Colliery Yorkshire, England coal mine shaft 640 m (2100 ft.) below ground level, where two, and later three birds were fed by the miners and lived for 3 years. (In November 1977, a pair nested in the mine and raised 3 young which did not survive). Because they are so adaptable, they are extremely effective at territorial control (see aggressive competitors) and range expansion. HOSP live in Death Valley, CA at 280 feet below sea level and in the Colorado Rocky Mountains at altitudes over 10,000 feet. Another factor may be ability to escape from natural enemies such as predators and native pathogens and parasites, which will contribute to rapid population growth and maintenance of high densities. (Lee et al, 2005)
  • Grow rapidly: HOSP eggs hatch in 11 days, and birds fledge when only 14 days old, and young are independent 7-10 days after leaving the nest. (Compare to 12-18 days incubation and 12-19 days fledging, and independence at 30 days for Eastern Bluebirds.) Theyquickly reach sexual maturity (as early as 9 mos. per McLoughlin. A 1986 study by Thuberin Guatemala indicated they may start breeding at 4 to 6 months).They also have a relatively long life span (the record for a wild HOSP is13 years 4 mos.), although their typical lifespan in the wild is probably about three years.
  • Aggressive competitors: HOSP begin nesting in late winter and early spring, beating other migratory birds such as Eastern Bluebirds, purple martins, and Tree Swallows to preferred nesting sites. They are aggressively territorial in their attachment to a nest site. They have a powerful crushing finch beak used to destroy eggs, nestlings and parents of other birds, and to attack occupants of nearby nestboxes. They may also attack other birds while they are feeding, and will overwhelm a bird feeder. They are persistent – FrankNavratil reported watching sparrows try to enter a tiny wren house with a 1-inch diameter entry hole for days at a time. HOSP are also fairly intelligent. A fast food restaurant in Australia had a set of doors that opened automatically when an “electric eye” was tripped. HOSP learned to hover in front of the electric eye until the door opened, or to sit on top of the eye and lean over until they tripped the sensor (Barn swallows have also reportedly learned to fly in front of sensors to open doors).

The combination of these factors has resulted in a very successful infestation of these “weeds of the air.”


  • Origin: Some sources say HOSP are native to Britain, northern Scandinavia, and northern Siberia to northern Africa, Arabia, India, and Burma.
  • Classification: Many sources (especially pre-1970) indicate that HOSP are Weaver Finches (instead of Sparrows) and put them in the family Ploceidae. According to Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy, which is based on DNA studies, the HOSP is an “Old World sparrows” (“true sparrows”), and member of the family Passeridae. Weaver finches are sometimes considered a subgroup of this family. Others consider them as members of a separate family, Estrildidae. “New World sparrows,” like the Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, and Chipping Sparrow, are members of the family Emberizidae (called Emberizine Sparrows). House Finches and Goldfinches are included in the family Fringillidae (“true finches”). Some people still classify many of the New World sparrows in this family.
  • HOSP names in other languages (Note: HOSP in some other countries may hybridize with other species), from Ceeege.com:
    Afrikaans: Huismossie
    Albanian: Harabeli
    Armenian: Tnayin Chnchghuk
    Croatian: Vrabac, Vrabac pokućar
    Czech: Vrabec domácí
    Gaelic: Gealbhonn
    Welsh: Aderyn y Tô
    Danish: Gråspurv
    Dutch: Huismus
    England: Phillip Sparrow (obsolete, per History of British Birds, Vol.2, 1882)
    Finnish: Varpunen
    French: Moineau domestique
    German: Haussperling
    Hebrew: Dror
    Hungarian: Házi veréb
    Icelandic: Gráspör
    Indonesian: Burung gereja
    Irish: Gealbhan Binne
    Italian: Passera europea
    Japanese: iesuzume
    Latvian: Mājas zvirbulis
    Lithuanian: Italinis (Naminis) žvirblis
    Malay: Ciak Rumah
    Maltese: Għasfur tal-bejt
    Norwegian: Gråspurv
    Polish: Wróbel
    Portuguese: Pardal-comum
    Romanian: Vrăbie de casă
    Russian Domovoy Vorobey
    Scottish: Gealbhonn
    Serbian: domaći vrabac
    Slovenian: domači vrabec
    Spanish: Gorrión doméstico, Gorrión común, Estornino rosado
    Swedish: Gråsparv
  • Passer domesticus, the scientific name, means a small active bird of the house. Linnaeus originally named it Fringilla domestica, but HOSP were placed in the Passer genus in 1760.


  • House Sparrows by Steve Eno retrieved from
  • InvasionBiology Introduced Species Summary Project,Columbia University
  • North American Bluebird Society
  • OhioHistory Central – English House Sparrow
  • House Sparrows in New York City Parks
  • Introduced Species Summary Project
  • BioKids – House Sparrow
  • TheDanger of Introducing Noxious Animals and Birds by Richard Van Vleck
  • “WORDSON THE WING” by Kim Todd. From “Tinkering with Eden:A Natural History of Exotics In America”. W. W.Norton & Company, New York, 2001.
  • Biodiversityand Conservation, Chapter 9, Exotic Introductionsby Peter Bryant
  • Cornell Birdscope, Winter 2004, Vol.18, No.1:Sparrows that Open Doors, by Melinda S. LaBranche
  • Dangerous Drop in Sparrow Population, News article 12/19/2005
  • House Sparrow Bio (Cornell – The Birdhouse Network)
  • How to Control House Sparrows, by Don Grussing, Dec.2000 2nd edition
  • University of TX, House Sparrow retrieved from
  • Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North AmericanBirds, by John K. Terres
  • The Animals Among us, by John C. McLoughlin,1978
  • Newspaper articles and ads on The Bluebird Nut
  • The English Sparrow in North America Especially Its Relations to Agriculture” Walter B. Barrows, 1889, 405 pages
  • Birds of America, editors T. Gilbert Pearson and John Burroughs, 1917
  • BTO Bird Facts (UK, British Trust for Ornithology)
  • D. Summers-Smith. 1980. Br. Birds 73:325-327 (coal mine).
  • Your Bird Friends and How to Win Them, Joseph H. Dodson, 1928
  • W. B. Barrows 1889. The English Sparrow in North America, especially in its relations to agriculture. USDA, Div. Econ. Ornith. Mammal. Bull. 1: 1–405.
  • Lowther, P.E. (2006). House Sparrow. (Passer domesticus). The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved from The Birds of North American Online database: .
    • W. B. Barrows 1889. The English Sparrow in North America, especially in its relations to agriculture. USDA, Div. Econ. Ornith. Mammal. Bull. 1: 1–405.
    • J. L. Long 1981. Introduced birds of the world. Universe Books, New York.
    • W. A. Thurber 1986. Range expansion of the House Sparrow through Guatemala and El Salvador. Amer. Birds 40: 341–350.
    • L. Wing 1943. Spread of the Starling and English Sparrow. Auk 60: 74–87.
  • Pimentel, David et al, Environmental and Economic Costs Associated with Non-Indigenous Species in the United States, 1999
  • Smithsonian Magazine, The Story of the Most Common Bird in the World, Rob Dunn, March 02, 2012

A certain traveler who knew many continents was asked what he found most remarkable of all.
He replied: the ubiquity of sparrows.

Adam Zagajewski, Another Beauty, 2002


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