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!

Folklore

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.

Voice

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!

Folklore

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

      Ronnie 

      4 days ago

      Four months ago I noticed two sparrows sneaking under some looser shingles and into a small dead-space in the attic of my garage. They built a nest there and would come and go frequently. They seemed nice enough, and I wasn't at all concerned about our new living situation.

      Eventually, they begat three of four babies. The little birdies grew up fast, their parents made sure of that, flying about the yard and journey just beyond it, hunting in a pure peck or snatch, returning with a bug or a seed to feed the newborns. And this they did ceaselessly and quietly during the day.

      (What sparrows do at night is still a mystery to all but a few)

      Soon, all around the air and across my window view, that family of sparrows grew and learned the world together (as well as a thing or two about one another). During heavy rain, they would take shelter. On hot summer afternoon in July, they'd dance almost dizzy and delighting in sheltering from the sun in the shades of tree to tree. I wondered at times how Dream's painter generated such beautiful shades of brown without spilling it all over the earth like Pollock slinging his colors from inwardness to canvas. And at times I realized how short the life of a sparrow is, but I did not lament this fact. Why? Because after a while the adult male sparrow would chirp at me whenever I would appear in its field of vision. He would chirp like the devil incarnate, and then he'd chirp some more.

      I hate this sparrow. But I am learning to love.

      In the future, please sends owls to stay the season.

      All storks necks outstretch when clear gracing our eyes and the standing still sky––except Leptoptilos genus, those adjutant birds..

    • profile image

      April Jablonski 

      3 weeks ago

      I have had the same 6 sparrows follow me for the last month . The day after the older man next door passed away that morning i had many more around then i have ever seen and they all were singing very loud telling me that he had passed and had begun his journey to the after life . The last few months all the animals have acted very strange around me . Like thwy are protecting me . It is very noticeable and happening with all kinds of different animals

    • profile image

      Catrina Cunningham 

      7 weeks ago

      Today Thursday May 14th 2020 I'm sitting on my living room couch with my front door open and two sparrow birds first flew into my clothes then front porch then flew into my front door into my living room they didn't go no further than the living room one almost immediately Departed back outside the other appeared as if they were going to the park but maybe couldn't find their way immediately so they went forward the window and they were sitting over in the window for a few minutes behind the curtain I went to close my bedroom doors and bathroom I shook the curtain aim their the sparrow came out it was flying around the living room the thing on top of the tree in the living room then it went toward the other window and side on top of the curtain I kept trying to direct it to the door I turned the light on in the living room and it began flying around again but didn't seem to leave so I turned the light off again it went to the door and sat on top of the door post finally it flew around again and went out the door post it was inside my closed in porch for a while I opened the screen door hoping that it will depart but it crawled inside of the Rooftop the closed-in porch still not sure if it went out from the top or is it still there does it have any meaning not one but two sparrows flew into my home today I'm driving and praying to be positive about it yet honestly I really don't know what to think of it please help

    • profile image

      ubeeka phillips 

      3 months ago

      a sparrow flew to the car i was sitting in and sat on the mirror part on the left side of door i was sitting exactly on that side of the door the bird looked calmed and relaxed no fear it was chirping abit what is that meaning symbolism

    • profile image

      NICOLE PATTI 

      3 months ago

      YESTERDAY AND TODAY A BIRD FLEW INTO OUR KITCHEN!

    • profile image

      oozlefinch 

      3 months ago

      Watched a sparrow a few years ago breaking up and eating dried up bit of Hamburger Bun watched another catching tiny insects on a car hood

    • profile image

      Mar 

      7 months ago

      A sparrow come in my house and I let him out the door. whats is that meaning?

    • profile image

      Amanda 

      8 months ago

      While doing work out of state in ND, a clay-colored sparrow came within a few feet of me and seemed very curious. It stayed with me for nearly 45 minutes while I was waiting on my co worker. I had been feeling anxious that day and while waiting I meditate for about 10 min. When I opened my eyes that sparrow was 2 feet in front of me just looking at me. That night I found out I was pregnant!

    • profile image

      Bob 

      9 months ago

      I had a dream this morning,seating in a beautiful green park with flowers and a very warm day, I seating down on a bench ,and i was watching these birds,and a little sparrow came by my feet,and climb up my leg and made is way to up to my face,and I seen he had little insects in is mouth , and it made it way to my lips and feed me like a little bird what a warm felling. would like to know the meaning of this dream.

    • profile image

      fred├žick 

      9 months ago

      i had expriance 7 month past until now the sparrow flying ontop ofmy roof making noise and scrach the roof everday daytime what doesit mean.....?

    • profile image

      Danielle Threewines 

      11 months ago

      I have three children and the day I brought them home from the hospital sparrows flew in immediately, and with my daughter (she’s also the youngest) they flew in before she was born and after she was born, but with all three of my children it happened. Coincidence or special good omen ? Idk weird

    • profile image

      Marian E Walker 

      14 months ago

      I love my sparrows and their dear cousins, the Titmouse! I have many many come to my backyard every year, except this year? Ive put out more birdhouses(5) and more feed! I usually enjoy their, "Beep beep beeps!" And echo it back to them!

    • profile image

      Marls 

      19 months ago

      Iwalked out the back door (and left it open) to put something into garage 30 sec, when i walked out of garage a sparrow was sitting on the top step. I took a step towards it and it flew into house! I went into house to close door to bedroom. It flew around until it found the open door it came in.

    • profile image

      joanne 

      20 months ago

      I would like to know the meaning of 3 eurasian tree sparrow siiting on my finger ?

    • profile image

      Jackie Roy 

      21 months ago

      I’m sitting on my couch in front of the window watching about 1hundred of sparrows flying around for bugs. I haven’t seen alot like this in a long time. Beautiful

    • profile image

      Brendan 

      23 months ago

      So i was just sitting on the deck and had a 1 eyed sparrow land on the rail. Does anyone have an idea if there is anything about 1 eyed sparrows?

    • profile image

      Amanda Stewart 

      23 months ago

      How do I get help saving a tree that they nest in.... and council my want to,cut down.

    • profile image

      pradip vasant deshpande 

      24 months ago

      very useful article .nearly 70 to 80 sparrow come to my home in the morning daily.i give them food grain .they like biskts .i feel good while watching them and get relax

    • profile image

      Teresa 

      2 years ago

      I have a sparroi that keeps flying into and scratches at my bathroom window. Then goes to my front living room window and does the same thing. What could it mean?

    • profile image

      Dan 

      2 years ago

      I a sparrow falling from the sky, it was dead, through the window, if felt omen. I feel that someone close to me will be taken. I hope there is another interpretation.

    • profile image

      Baltisraul 

      2 years ago

      In the South, grilled corn off the cob in an Iron Skillet is called The Sparrows Home. Anybody know why?

    • profile image

      Anna 

      2 years ago

      earlier today we had 6 sparrows fly into our home , what would the meaning of this be?

    • profile image

      Dustin 

      2 years ago

      To Erica, the bird being found dead in your garage is a spiritual thing that you should look into. Every other month c'mon girl, check it out

    • profile image

      Aman saino 

      2 years ago

      A sparrow is building nest in my house ....is it a good sign or bad sign

    • profile image

      Erica LSP 

      2 years ago

      So it seems every other month or so a sparrow is found lying dead in my 3 car garage ( more like two and a half ) but i always make a proper burial for them. yet i have no clue where there are coming from. I looked for how and where they are coming from and can't find a nest..... also birds on more frequent occasion mash int my windshield. i don't know what kind of bird that smallest my car while driving. but yeah... PLEASE HELP! I NEED ANSWERS. thanks xo

    • profile image

      Whovian Prince 

      2 years 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

      Kamalesh Chakraverty 

      5 years ago from Sahaganj, Dist. Hooghly, West Bengal, India

      Beautiful and also very Interesting. Have a good day!

    • profile image

      LaDawn Potter 

      5 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 imageAUTHOR

      Jennifer Stone 

      7 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 

      7 years ago from North Central West Virginia, where the green grass grows...

      Jen,

      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 imageAUTHOR

      Jennifer Stone 

      7 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 

      7 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Jen,

      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 imageAUTHOR

      Jennifer Stone 

      7 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

      Life Under Construction 

      7 years ago from Neverland

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

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