House sparrow patriarchy

Male house sparrows (Passer domesticus) are hierarchical, according to Nicholas Lund on the website. The hierarchy depends on the size of the black patch on the breasts of male house sparrows. Breeding male house sparrows have larger black chest badges than non-breeding males. Other hierarchal factors in males include the color of their bills and the size of their white wing patches. Chest badge size correlates closely with fighting ability as well as age. High-ranking males tend to eat at safer food sites and have bigger and better breeding territories. The male house sparrow at left above is developing his black breast patch while the male in the photo at right above shows very little black chest. Non-breeding male house sparrows can be identified as those without the chest badge. The bird in the middle is a female house sparrow.


Female house sparrows are rather plain little brown birds with solid grey chests and a cute buff-colored eyebrow stripe. They tend to choose males with the best food sites and breeding territories, which are of course the males with the biggest chest badges. How handy. According to Lund, female house sparrows can be aggressive during certain seasons, presumably breeding seasons. Around the feeders, they seem to me like busy little housewives, always in company with males. I’ve never seen one chased away from the feeders.

Female house finches are also little brown birds but can be distinguished from female house sparrows by their lack of an eyebrow stripe and by the heavy tan-and-brown streaks on their chests, as opposed to the solid grey chests of female house sparrows. Hope you got that confusing tidbit straight. Female house finches vs. female house sparrows.

According to, house sparrows are Old World Sparrows that were introduced into New York City in 1851. Some sources say they were part of the fanciful notion to introduce all Shakespearian birds into the U.S. Maybe that’s an urban myth. House sparrows aren’t native. They can be aggressive. They’ve been known to take over nests of native species, such as bluebirds.

House sparrows are like garden weeds. They thrive in disturbed spaces. Neither house sparrows nor garden weeds are found in undisturbed spaces–forests, prairies, deserts. They follow civilization and thrive wherever development occurs. Since 1851, house sparrows have followed people to all corners of North America, excepting Alaska and northern Canada. They are urban birds, although they also can be found around farm buildings in rural areas. They seem to be everywhere people have built structures, and they are often resented by bird lovers.

There isn’t anything lovable about the looks of a breeding male. The males in the photos above seem to be transitioning from non-breeding to breeding males, as is evident from the developing black breast patches. I get annoyed with them when they are hogging space at the feeders, particularly when I know that black-capped chickadees or tufted titmice are waiting their turn in the nearby magnolia tree, and the dratted male house sparrows are lolling about at the feeders, not even bothering to eat for minutes at a time. I mean, just look at them in the photos above. So annoying.

That said, I have to admit I’ve also taken photos of house sparrows sharing feeder space with other birds. In the photos above, they are peaceably co-existing with house finches, a red-bellied woodpecker, and a dark-eyed junco. At least for the moment.

It’s also true that I get caught up in the narrative of house sparrow patriarchy–the stodgy old male sparrows, the smart little females. I’m watching to see the black breast patches on male house sparrows develop as breeding season approaches.

Those rotten old male house sparrows just better leave the black-capped chickadees alone. That’s all I will say about that.











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