One of the most common garden birds in the UK is the house sparrow though their numbers have been in huge decline for a number of years. Even so, there are still around 5.3 million breeding pairs in Britain alone.
This noisy and gregarious character is mostly non-migratory and so needs to have a plentiful food supply year round, not all feeding tables are well stocked, so I thought I would explore just what he likes to eat and how he comes across it.
House sparrows are mostly vegetarian relying mainly on seeds and plants. They enjoy tender grasses and soft buds. As they live in loose colonies and fly in flocks, it is common in late summer to see large groups of sparrows in the countryside feeding on ripening grain in a farmer’s field.
The newly hatched sparrow feeds almost solely on a diet of animal matter and insects; the high protein is a necessity to promote good health and growth. It is at this time of year that the adult birds, both cock and hen, will eat insects too. Aphids and caterpillars are particular favourites.
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The house sparrow will cheerfully exploit man’s waste and rubbish.
He can easily find nourishment from your kitchen scraps, whether you have purposely left them on a bird table or if he finds them on a compost heap.
The garden bird feeder will also be exploited to the highest degree by the house sparrow, there is little on the table that he won’t eat, though obviously he still has his preferences. Seeds, suet and fruit are his favourites.
In The Garden
The house sparrow is exceptionally easily pleased, not a finicky eater like other breeds of birds, particular some members of the finch family.
Homemade bird treats are an ideal place to start. Fun for the family to make and rewarding to watch the birds eat.
Use softened lard or melted suet, my preference, and mix it with mixed birdseed, breadcrumbs, grated peanuts, corn and porridge oats until it is a mouldable consistency. Made into a ball or block and hung from a branch. Simple.
Fruit is always good for birds; apple and orange are universally accepted choices for garden birds, though the sparrow is keen on grapes, pears, peaches, cherries and plums too.
No need to peel or core the apples, but be aware to only put out what your bird can manage in a day or two, rotting fruit not only can upset the sparrow’s stomach but it will attract unwanted pests too, particularly rats.
Peanuts are another favourite of the sparrow, an excellent balance of oil and protein, both required for good health and energy.
Please be wary of the problems whole peanuts can cause, the adult may be tempted to drop it into a baby’s waiting open mouth; this is obviously a choking hazard. Either crush the nuts or hang them in feeders with small ports, that way the sparrow will crush them for himself as he eats.
Never use salted peanuts, just as high salt content is bad for humans, it is the same for birds. I’ve read about birds being fed peanut butter as a treat; please make sure the sodium levels are very low if you decide to do this. I choose not to, peanut butter is solely for on the celery in this house!
Suspended bird feeders are a doddle for the sparrow, niger, sunflower and mixed birdseed are all fine for him, the former supply him with vitamins, protein and calcium. All will ensure his skin and feathers and his bones and beak stay in great condition.
Expect your feeders emptied of seed in record time when a flock of sparrows have found them!
Breadcrumbs soaked in water offer him a simple variation, but be careful to remove anything uneaten within a day.
Soaking the breadcrumbs confirms it is the adult that actually eats them, and not the nestlings, as it swells in their tiny stomachs.
In the Wild
The house sparrow is predominantly vegetarian and in the wild survives on the seeds of wheat, corn, oats, millet and ragweed. Sadly, for gardeners, he enjoys freshly sprinkled grass seed too!
The sparrow’s bill is stout and chunky, a seedeater’s beak, perfectly designed for the job in hand. He either uses it to separate the seed from the husk or to pull apart the seed until he gets to the good bit inside. Starch is what he is searching for; the part that helps the plant grow is also the most flavoursome section for the bird.
This is what we use to make flour and bread and so probably, what attracts the sparrow to breadcrumbs!
It is usual to see huge flocks of sparrows feasting on the ripening grain and pillaging farmer’s crops in the field, often causing him significant loss.
We can guarantee that a sparrow will never go hungry, he can feast on kitchen and restaurant scraps. Bins laden with goodies such as fruit, tomatoes, peas, lettuce, rice, soybeans and breadcrumbs offer required nourishment. Rummaging through waste bins is a regular occurrence for a sparrow.
Even discarded chips on the floor are a snack for him!
The Meaty Option
During spring and early summer, the adult sparrows will eat more small insects. They feed their young on these, aphids and caterpillars in particular. Spiders, bees and moths are not safe and sparrows have even been spotted picnicking over the cadaver of frogs!
The sparrow needs to maintain his high metabolic rate and will therefore eat most things that are rich in high-energy vitamins, oils and nutrients.
This article would have been easier to write if it had been titled What Doesn’t a Sparrow Eat!
Whether they are garden or wild birds it appears that there is a constant supply of a wide range of foods for the sparrow, and if not, he will help himself to your leftovers!
He is the bird equivalent of a vacuum cleaner; move over Henry, the house sparrow is in town!