The Meaning of Sparrows: Identification and Folklore
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
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.
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.
Sparrows have an extra bone in their tongue to help them eat seeds!
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!
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 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!
The ancient Egyptians used a hieroglyph that represented the house sparrow. It was used as a determinative in the words "small," "narrow," or "bad."
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!
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.