The Meaning of Sparrows: Identification and Folklore

Updated on September 22, 2016

Sparrows: Passeridae

The sparrow is a familiar little bird, and is widespread throughout Britain and Ireland (with the possible exception of upland and Northern districts). It is also widespread throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa, and thanks to imports from settlers, they are prevalent in North and South America and Australia.

In recent years numbers have been in decline and it is now less common to see flocks of them feeding or chirping from rooftops, although you should have no trouble spotting the house sparrow, especially in urban parks where people feed them.

There is an incredible amount of folklore and superstition surrounding these friendly little birds and they are even mentioned in the bible! I'm going to describe how to identify the different types of sparrow, address what we can do about their decline, and discuss how important they have been historically with all the legends surrounding them.

The two most common species are the house sparrow and the tree sparrow.

The House Sparrow

Passer domesticus

This is the most common species of sparrow and measures 14-15 cm in length. It is a sociable bird and favours areas of human habitation for nesting and roosting, often living in large flocks on rooftops in cities and in agricultural areas.

  • The adult male has a grey crown, cheeks, and rump. The nape, sides of the crown, back, and wings are chestnut brown, and the underparts are pale grey. It has a black throat and breast, dark bill, and reddish legs. In winter the chestnut colour is less intense and the bill is paler.
  • The adult female has mainly brown upperparts, including the crown, and the back is streaked with buff. The underparts are pale grey, and it has a pale supercilium (stripe) behind the eye.
  • Juvenile birds are similar to adult females except the plumage pattern is less distinct.

A male house sparrow dust-bathing
A male house sparrow dust-bathing | Source

The house sparrow prefers man-made nesting sites such as holes in walls and roof spaces. In the absence of a suitable wall or roof, it will make a large, untidy nest in a bush. They eat seeds and small insects.

This species has declined as much as 50% over the last few decades, although there are still several million pairs breeding in Britain and Ireland.

Fun Fact

Sparrows have an extra bone in their tongue to help them eat seeds!

Greek Mythology

Symbol of Love

The sparrow was a sacred bird to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and symbolised true love and a spiritual connection, not just lust. (Although in contradiction to this, sparrows are often regarded as the most lustful and sexually active birds!)

In Troy, 9 sparrows were eaten by a snake and this foretold 9 years of war!


Death Omen

In European folklore, a sparrow flying into the home is seen as a sign of impending death! One variation of this superstition is that in Kent, England, the person who catches one must kill it or else his parents will die! Other variations include one that the catcher must kill it or else he will be the one who dies.

Luckily for the sparrow, they rarely fly into people's homes and most people no longer feel the need to kill one if it does!

The Tree Sparrow
The Tree Sparrow

The Tree Sparrow

Passer montanus

The tree sparrow is the more rural counterpart of the house sparrow, choosing holes in trees as its preferred nesting site. It likes untidy arable farms taking advantage of frequent grain spills, and can sometimes be observed feeding alongside the house sparrow in this location. Outside of breeding season, the tree sparrow forms large flocks and feeds in fields alongside finches and buntings.

The sexes are similar.

  • Adult birds have a chestnut cap and a striking black patch on the otherwise whitish cheeks and side of head. It has a black bib on otherwise greyish-white underparts, and the back and wings are streaked brown with white wing-bars.
  • Juvenile birds are similar but the facial markings are darker and less distinct.


The tree sparrow utters the same familiar chirping of the house sparrow, but it also has a sharp tik-tik in flight.

The tree sparrow has suffered a catastrophic decline over recent decades, and its numbers have reduced by more than 90%!

This is most likely due to changes to farming practices, notably the autumn planting of cereal crops and the subsequent lack of winter stubble fields. Also the increasing use of efficient herbicides mean the absence of "weed seeds" in many areas.

Help the Tree Sparrow!

If you live in a rural area where you have seen tree sparrows, encourage them to nest by putting several nesting boxes in close proximity to each other in your garden!

Fun Fact

The ancient Egyptians used a hieroglyph that represented the house sparrow. It was used as a determinative in the words "small," "narrow," or "bad."

Just above the sparrow is the word "forever".
Just above the sparrow is the word "forever". | Source

Sparrows the Soul Catchers

According to the ancient Egyptians, sparrows would catch the souls of the recently deceased and carry them to heaven.

Sailors would often get a sparrow tattoo in the hope that one would catch their soul if they died at sea!


Good Luck Omen

In Indonesian superstition, a sparrow flying into your home denotes good luck (especially if they build a nest!). It can also mean a wedding will happen soon, and if a lady sees one on Valentine's Day, she will find happiness marrying a poor man. The call of the sparrow will bring rain!

In Literature

Sparrows have been represented in literature throughout history, from the ancient Greek and Roman poets, to numerous religious texts, and later by Chaucer and Shakespeare. The brothers Grimm wrote a particularly gruesome fairy tale about one.

In the bible, they were used as offerings given by the very poor, and represent the concern of God for even the smallest and most insignificant lifeforms. In other texts the sparrow has been used to represent the presence of God and His love for everything.

Matthew 10:29 Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Fathers will.

Chaucer and Shakespeare both use sparrows to denote lecherous or promiscuous behaviour.

As hot, he was, and lecherous as a sparrow... Chaucer Canterbury Tales

Sparrows must not build in his house eaves, because they are lecherous Shakespeare Measure

Sparrows are still depicted in literature today, from soul catchers in horror stories to poetry.


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    • profile image

      Whovian Prince 4 months ago

      I recently watched The Dark Half again as I am writing a novel and wondered if you knew anything about something they mention in the film. Sparrows are known to catch souls that were never meant to be and take them to the after-life. Is this familiar to you?

    • Kamalesh050 profile image

      Kamalesh050 2 years ago from Sahaganj, Dist. Hooghly, West Bengal, India

      Beautiful and also very Interesting. Have a good day!

    • profile image

      LaDawn Potter 2 years ago

      I believe in the tale of the sparrow. One flew Ibrought my dad's house the morning he died. He went to sleep on the couch and me and my brother found him dead. I have a sparrow tattoo now.

    • Jennifer Stone profile image

      Jennifer Stone 5 years ago from the Riverbank, England

      Thank you Michael, I'm glad you enjoyed it! All the best from the riverbank, Jen

    • rmichaelf profile image

      Michael Fielder 5 years ago from North Central West Virginia, where the green grass grows...


      Your enjoyment and love of sparrows is not the only thing made "obvious" with this, as well is your love of writing made obvious! The details, pictures, knowledge and joie de vie in this essay pulled me into my own state of joie! (but I am a total animal lover, so I am easy!!)

      Thank you,

    • Jennifer Stone profile image

      Jennifer Stone 5 years ago from the Riverbank, England

      They are the scientific names of the breed, for the bird geeks it separates the different species of birds into different groups or "families". In this instance sparrows are passerine birds, "Passeridae", then each sub species has it's own name under that title eg Passer montanus and Passer domesticus. All birds in one category will have similar characteristics, interestingly passerine birds are perching song birds of the order Passeriformes, which took their name from the house sparrow (Passer domesticus)!

      Now you know the secret geek in me! lol :-) Thanks for your feedback Josh, Have a great day!

    • josh3418 profile image

      Joshua Zerbini 5 years ago from Pennsylvania


      Beautiful photos and informative hub! What are those words you put in after each bird mean? Example : :Passer montanus" I am just curious. :)

      P.S. I can tell you love sparrows, you have recently published two of them. :)

    • Jennifer Stone profile image

      Jennifer Stone 5 years ago from the Riverbank, England

      Thank you spy, I didn't know that... I might see if I can incorporate it into my hub somewhere... I've always loved sparrows, and it's amazing how much there is to still learn about them! Thanks for your feedback, Jen

    • unknown spy profile image

      IAmForbidden 5 years ago from Neverland - where children never grow up.

      We call the tree sparrow, Maya and this is our national bird. Very informative hub about these fantastic bird.