Passeridae – Old World Sparrows

White-browed Sparrow-Weaver Plocepasser mahali ©Trevor Hardaker Website

Passeridae are a family of small passerines, old world sparrows and allies. They are also known as true sparrows, or Old World sparrows, names also used for a particular genus of the family, Passer. They are distinct from both the American sparrows, in the family Emberizidae, and from a few other birds sharing their name, such as the Java Sparrow of the family Estrildidae.

Many species nest on buildings, and the House Sparrow and Eurasian Tree Sparrow in particular inhabit cities in large numbers, so sparrows are among the most familiar of all wild birds. They are primarily seed-eaters, though they also consume small insects. Some species scavenge for food around cities and, like gulls or rock doves, will happily eat virtually anything edible in small quantities.

Generally, sparrows are small, plump, brown-grey birds with short tails and stubby, powerful beaks. The differences between sparrow species can be subtle. Members of this family range in size from the Chestnut Sparrow Passer eminibey, at 11.4 centimetres and 13.4 grams, to the Parrot-billed Sparrow Passer gongonensis, at 18 centimetres and 42 grams. Sparrows are physically similar to other seed-eating birds, such as finches, but have a vestigial dorsal outer primary feather and an extra bone in the tongue. This bone, the preglossale, helps stiffen the tongue when holding seeds. Other adaptations towards eating seeds are specialised bills and elongated and specialised alimentary canals.

Sparrows are generally social birds, with many species breeding in loose colonies and most species occurring in flocks during the non-breeding season. The Great Sparrow is an exception, breeding in solitary pairs and remaining only in small family groups in the non-breeding season. Most sparrows form large roosting aggregations in the non-breeding seasons that contain only a single species (in contrast to multi-species flocks that might gather for foraging). Sites are chosen for cover and include trees, thick bushes and reed beds. The assemblages can be quite large with up to 10,000 house sparrows counted in one roost in Egypt.

The sparrows are some of the few passerine birds that engage in dust bathing. Sparrows will first scratch a hole in the ground with their feet, then lie in it and fling dirt or sand over their bodies with flicks of their wings. They will also bathe in water, or in dry or melting snow. Water bathing is similar to dust bathing, with the sparrow standing in shallow water and flicking water over its back with its wings, also ducking its head under the water. Both activities are social, with up to a hundred birds participating at once, and is followed by preening and sometimes group singing

According to the IOC there are 51 species of Old World Sparrows. They are:

Cinnamon Ibon Hypocryptadius cinnamomeus

White-browed Sparrow-Weaver Plocepasser mahali
Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-Weaver Plocepasser superciliosus
Donaldson Smith’s Sparrow-Weaver Plocepasser donaldsoni
Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Weaver Plocepasser rufoscapulatus

Rufous-tailed Weaver Histurgops ruficauda

Grey-capped Social Weaver Pseudonigrita arnaudi
Black-capped Social Weaver Pseudonigrita cabanisi

Sociable Weaver Philetairus socius

Saxaul Sparrow Passer ammodendri
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Italian Sparrow Passer italiae
Spanish Sparrow Passer hispaniolensis
Sind Sparrow Passer pyrrhonotus
Somali Sparrow Passer castanopterus
Russet Sparrow Passer rutilans
Plain-backed Sparrow Passer flaveolus
Dead Sea Sparrow Passer moabiticus
Iago Sparrow Passer iagoensis
Great Sparrow Passer motitensis
Socotra Sparrow Passer insularis
Abd al-Kuri Sparrow Passer hemileucus
Kenya Sparrow Passer rufocinctus
Shelley’s Sparrow Passer shelleyi
Kordofan Sparrow Passer cordofanicus
Cape Sparrow Passer melanurus
Northern Grey-headed Sparrow Passer griseus
Swainson’s Sparrow Passer swainsonii
Parrot-billed Sparrow Passer gongonensis
Swahili Sparrow Passer suahelicus
Southern Grey-headed Sparrow Passer diffusus
Desert Sparrow Passer simplex
Zarudny’s Sparrow Passer zarudnyi
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Sudan Golden Sparrow Passer luteus
Arabian Golden Sparrow Passer euchlorus
Chestnut Sparrow Passer eminibey

Pale Rockfinch Carpospiza brachydactyla

Rock Sparrow Petronia petronia

Yellow-throated Petronia Gymnoris superciliaris
Bush Petronia Gymnoris dentata
Yellow-spotted Petronia Gymnoris pyrgita
Yellow-throated Sparrow Gymnoris xanthocollis

White-winged Snowfinch Montifringilla nivalis
Henri’s Snowfinch Montifringilla henrici
Tibetan Snowfinch Montifringilla adamsi

White-rumped Snowfinch Onychostruthus taczanowskii

Pere David’s Snowfinch Pyrgilauda davidiana
Rufous-necked Snowfinch Pyrgilauda ruficollis
Blanford’s Snowfinch Pyrgilauda blanfordi
Afghan Snowfinch Pyrgilauda theresae

Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 51

Useful Reading
  • Finches & Sparrows

    Peter Clement, Alan Harris & John Davis Helm 1993 ISBN: 0713680172 Buy this book from
  • On Sparrows and Man - A Love-Hate Relationship

    J Denis Summers-Smith - 112 pages, colour photos. Denis Summers-Smith 2006 ISBN: 0952538326 Buy this book from
Other Links
  • Concerns about the population decline of the House Sparrow Passer domesticus in the Netherlands

    "Who is worrying about the decline of the House Sparrow? I was and still am…..I'll explain why. As can be seen from the above graph there is a steady long-term decline in House Sparrow numbers in the USA and similar declines have been found in European countries such as the UK, Germany and the Netherlands…"

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