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Birds Guide


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Old World sparrows
House Sparrow
House Sparrow
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Passeridae
Illiger, 1811

This article is about "true sparrows," the Old World sparrows in the family Passeridae. Sparrows are small passerine birds. The differences between sparrow species can be subtle. In general, sparrows tend to be small plump brownish or greyish birds with short tails and stubby powerful beaks. They are primarily seed-eaters, though they also consume small insects. A few species scavenge for food around cities, and like gulls or pigeons will happily eat virtually anything in small quantities.

The Old World true sparrows are found indigenously in Europe, Africa, and Asia. In Australia and the Americas, early settlers imported some species which quickly naturalised, particularly in urban and degraded areas. House Sparrows, for example, are now found throughout North America, in every state of Australia except Western Australia, and over much of heavily populated parts of South America.

Some authorities also classify the closely related estrildid finches of the equatorial regions and Australasia as members of the Passeridae. Like the true sparrows, the estrildid finches are small, gregarious, and often colonial seed-eaters with short, thick, but pointed bills. They are broadly similar in structure and habits, but tend to be very colourful and vary greatly in their plumage. About 140 species are native to the old world tropics and Australasia. Most taxonomic schemes list the estrildid finches as the separate family Estrildidae, leaving just the true sparrows in Passeridae.

American sparrows, or New World sparrows, are not closely related to the true sparrows, despite some physical resemblance, such as the seed-eaters bill and frequently well-marked heads. They are in the family Emberizidae.

The Hedge Sparrow or Dunnock (Prunella modularis) is similarly unrelated. It is a sparrow in name only, a relic of the old practice of calling any small bird a "sparrow".

There are 35 species of Old World sparrows, in four genera.

Species list

  • Passer, the true sparrows
    • Saxaul Sparrow, Passer ammodendri
      House Sparrow, Passer domesticus
      Spanish Sparrow, Passer hispaniolensis
      Sind Sparrow, Passer pyrrhonotus
      Somali Sparrow, Passer castanopterus
      Cinnamon Sparrow or Russet Sparrow, Passer rutilans
      Pegu Sparrow or Plain-backed Sparrow, Passer flaveolus
      Dead Sea Sparrow, Passer moabiticus
      Rufous Sparrow, Passer motitensis
      Socotra Sparrow, Passer insularis
      Iago Sparrow or Cape Verde Sparrow, Passer iagoensis
      Cape Sparrow or Mossie, Passer melanurus
      Grey-headed Sparrow, Passer griseus
      Swainson's Sparrow, Passer swainsonii
      Parrot-billed Sparrow, Passer gongonensis
      Swaheli Sparrow, Passer suahelicus
      Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Passer diffusus
      Desert Sparrow, Passer simplex
      Tree Sparrow, Passer montanus
      Sudan Golden Sparrow, Passer luteus
      Arabian Golden Sparrow, Passer euchlorus
      Chestnut Sparrow, Passer eminibey
      Italian Sparrow, Passer italiae
      Kenya Rufous Sparrow, Passer rufocinctus
      Kordofan Rufous Sparrow, Passer cordofanicus
      Shelley's Rufous Sparrow, Passer shelleyi
      Asian Desert Sparrow, Passer zarudnyi
  • Petronia, the rock sparrows
    • Yellow-spotted Petronia, Petronia pyrgita
      Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, Petronia xanthocollis
      Yellow-throated Petronia, Petronia superciliaris
      Bush Petronia, Petronia dentata
      Rock Sparrow, Petronia petronia
  • Carpospiza, Pale Rockfinch
    • Pale Rockfinch, Carpospiza brachydactyla
  • Montifringilla, the snowfinches
    • White-winged Snowfinch, Montifringilla nivalis
      Black-winged Snowfinch, Montifringilla adamsi
      White-rumped Snowfinch, Montifringilla taczanowskii
      Père David's Snowfinch, Montifringilla davidiana
      Rufous-necked Snowfinch, Montifringilla ruficollis
      Blanford's Snowfinch, Montifringilla blanfordi
      Afghan Snowfinch, Montifringilla theresae
      Tibetan Snowfinch, Montifringilla henrici

Sparrows in literature

The Roman poet Catullus addresses one of his odes to his lover Lesbia's pet sparrow (‘Passer, deliciae meae puellae...’), and writes an elegy on its death (‘Lugete, o Veneres Cupidinesque...’). The sparrow's playful erotic intimacy with its mistress ('To whose seeking she often gives her first finger/And provokes sharp pecks') makes the poet envious. At the climax of its elegy he reproaches it for dying, and distressing her ('Now, by your deeds, my girl's/Little eyes are slightly swollen and red from weeping'). The diminutiveness of the sparrow, and the hugeness and eternity of the afterlife, form a bathos that is typical of the mock elegy form: ‘qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum/illuc unde negant redire quemquam’ ('He now goes on a journey through that gloomy place,/From where they say no one returns'). Note how the sparrow's hopping is represented metrically. The bird is also alluded to in the line "He who lives by the stick, dies by the stick" in James Wilson's "The Stick Finch".

In 'Phyllyp Sparowe' (pub. c. 1505), by the English poet John Skelton, Jane Scrope's laments for her dead sparrow are mixed with antiphonal Latin liturgy from the Office of the Dead. It belongs to the same tradition as Catullus' poem, or Ovid's lament for a parrot in the Amores, but the erotic element is more direct: 'And on me it wolde lepe/Whan I was aslepe,/And his fethers shake,/Wherewith he wolde make/Me often for to wake/And for to take him in/Upon my naked skyn'.

External links

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