Category Archives: Perching Birds

House Sparrow – Passer domesticus Information and Description

General: The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is one of the most common bird species in North America, although it is a non-native species. These sociable and tame birds can be The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is a bird of the sparrow family Passeridae, found in most parts of the worldspotted in backyards hopping along the ground pecking at seed as well as on city streets feeding on crumbs. This species has a long running relationship with humans and has come to rely heavily on human populations for survival. House Sparrows have healthy and stable populations across a wide geographic range and are listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

Description: House Sparrows are unrelated to other species of sparrows that are native to North America and, therefore, differ in appearance. They may be identified by their shorter, stockier appearances, accentuated by full chests, shorter tails and legs, large round heads and shorter, thicker beaks. House Sparrows reach a mature size of 5.9” to 6.7” in length and 27g to 29g in weight. Their wingspan, when full grown, is 7.5” to 9.8”1. Geographic variations exist due to the House Sparrows immense range. Colder climates tend to produce larger birds with shorter wings and legs, whereas populations with darker plumage tend to be found in humid climates2.

Coloration may differ between sexes and during different seasons. Both sexes generally have buff, brown and black stripes on their backs, although males tend to be more brightly colored, with gray heads, black patches or “bibs” on their necks and white cheeks. Females are generally dull tan-gray, with gray undersides, buff eye-stripes, and a bill that is more yellow than males. During the summer, breeding males will display a black bill, mask, throat and chest, a gray cap, and a white stripe on their shoulders. Their main coloring is a reddish-brown with black streaks. Non-breeding males lack the vibrant reddish-brown coloration because those feathers become obscured by gray feather tips. Non-breeding males also have less black on their throats and chests, and yellow at the base of their bills3. This seasonal variation is due to an annual molt. Juveniles are plain in color, in appearance to females.

House Sparrows are generally tame and sociable birds, within their flocks and with people, especially during the winter. Because these birds live in social communities, methods of communication have been developed to relay dominance, submissiveness, nervousness, courting and aggression. They often feed together to minimize predation and their flocks have social structures that are similar to that of chickens. Male House Sparrows with larger black throat patches tend to be dominant over males with smaller bibs. During the courting and breeding season females tend to be more assertive, but males are the dominant sex in the flock throughout the rest of the year. Nervousness is indicated by a flick of the tail. Aggression is communicated by a crouched posture with thrust-forward head, spread wings, erect tails and ruffled feathers (in extreme situations.) In a courting display, a male will puff up his chest and open his wings and tail, hopping stiffly and bowing up and down in front of the female4. In addition to social dominance and behavioral communication, House Sparrows are a noisy species that uses a number of simple vocalizations to verbalize warnings, threats and defense, or to attract a mate. The most common sounds include a chatter (often used by females toward her mate or to chase away competing females,) a cheep (used in a series to attract mates and in a flock to communicate submissiveness,) wheezy calls, and chirps.
House Sparrows tend to have more direct and higher flight than native species of sparrows. Their flight is continuous and lacks periods of gliding5. Because of their stature and short legs, House Sparrows can most often be seen hopping on the ground rather than walking.
House Sparrows tend to have life spans of just a few years. However, there are recorded instances of wild House Sparrows living as long as 13 to 15 years.

Habitat: House Sparrows tend to be found in areas inhabited or affected by humans, including cities, towns, suburbs, farms, and parks. Because of their dependency on humans, House Sparrows are unable to survive in areas such as uninhabited woodlands, alpine forests, grasslands, or deserts. In extreme climates House Sparrows must maintain a close proximity to human populations for survival.

In their habitats House Sparrows (and their eggs and young) are vulnerable to a number of predators, such as hawks, owls, cats, dogs, raccoons and snakes. House Sparrows tendency to forage in flocks increases their awareness and survival rates.

Location: House Sparrows are year round residents of their native environments of Eurasia and North Africa. Introduced, invasive populations are also non-migratory and thrive in South Africa, South America, New Zealand, Australia, and North America. Their lack of migration increases survival rates because of a diminished demand for energy and exposure to predators.
The House Sparrow was introduced to Brooklyn, New York in 1851, when 100 birds from England were released. This may have been done to control certain insect populations or to make the area more familiar to European immigrants. By the turn of the century, House Sparrow populations had spread to the Rocky Mountains. Additional populations were released in San Francisco and Salt Lake City in the 1870’s, expanding this species range across North America (excluding Alaska and northern parts of Canada6.)

Diet: House Sparrows are omnivorous ground foragers that spend much of their time hopping along the ground pecking at food. House Sparrows have also been known to steal food from larger species of birds and drink nectar from flowers. Their diets consist mainly of grain and seed (corn, oats, sorghum, wheat,) crumbs and food waste, ragweed, grasses, buckwheat, commercial birdseed, and insects.

Reproduction: House Sparrows are monogamous and form breeding pairs each season, with nesting beginning in late winter and courtship occurring in early spring. Nesting may begin only a few days before the first egg is laid. House Sparrows prefer to build their nests in manmade structures such as the walls of buildings, on streetlights, in nest boxes or in the eaves of houses. They have been known to evict other birds from their nests, destroying existing eggs and physically attacking the opposing birds. House Sparrows tend to reuse their nests. And have been known to aggressively defend their nesting areas.

Both males and females construct the nests by stuffing their nesting cavities with dry vegetation until the hole is nearly full and then lining the interior with softer materials such as string, paper, and feathers. House Sparrows often nest in close proximity to each other, the nests sometimes sharing a common wall.

House Sparrows may lay up to 4 broods in a year, each containing between 1 and 8 white/light-green/blue-white eggs, speckled with gray or brown and approximately 7/8” in length. Parents alternate incubating the eggs for a period of 10 to 14 days. Young chicks are born naked and uncoordinated, with closed eyes. During the nestling period of 10 to 14 days both parents feed the chicks through regurgitation. House Sparrows reach sexual maturity by around 9 months of age.

Notes of Interest:

House Sparrows enjoy dust baths and can often be spotted coating their bodies with dust and dirt. They also take baths in puddles or shallow water, using a similar flicking motion to coat their feathers.

Because House Sparrows are so numerous and tame, they are often the subject of avian biological studies and have been the subject of nearly 5,000 scientific papers7.

Although House Sparrows are common and numbers are stable, some populations have experienced a sharp decline, possibly due to farming practices, and changes in land-use. Despite this, they are not considered threatened and are not protected under any laws or regulations.



Steller’s Jay – Cyanocitta stelleri

General: Steller’s Jays (Cyanocitta stelleri) are bold, social and extremely vocal Steller's Jay habitat, behavior, diet, migration patterns, conservation status, and nesting.birds that can be found in the mountainous areas of the North American west. They may best be known for their dark blue coloration and lack of white undersides. Be cautious of these vividly colored and inquisitive birds when picnicking, as they have been known to steal unguarded fare. Steller’s Jay populations are healthy and expanding and are listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

Description: Steller’s Jays are large, robust birds that reach adult weights of 3.5 to 5 oz. and lengths of 11.75 to 13.5”. They have full, long tails, large heads with thick, straight black bills and rounded wings that open to a span of over 17”. Steller’s Jays, like Blue Jays, have prominent crests that sit erect atop their heads. These two species are the only two in North American that have easily distinguishable crests1.

Steller’s Jays are identifiable by their allover dark coloration, lacking the light underparts common of many species. Their heads are charcoal in color with subtle white or blue markings and black crests. Their bodies are dark cobalt blue accented by vivid blue and black barring on the wings and tail. Sexual dimorphism is minimal within this species, with females only being slightly fainter in color and with slightly less barring than males. Juvenile Steller’s Jays lack the brilliance of adults and instead are brown or gray with less prominent crests.

Geographic variations occur across the seventeen known subspecies of Steller’s Jays. These differences can include greater amounts of blue or black across the bodies and crests, and variations in head sizes and patterning.

Steller’s Jays are intelligent, noisy and inquisitive birds that spend most of their time foraging and exploring their habitats. On the ground and in trees they move with bold hops (pausing often to investigate their surroundings) and in the air they travel with graceful, long and steady wing beats (their wings rarely extending past horizontal2.)

Steller’s Jays are extremely social birds, traveling in flocks of mating Steller’s Jay pairs as well as in mixed-species flocks. Their populations are built upon complex patterns of social hierarchies and dominance. To display aggression, two jays may partake in aerial fights, grasping and pecking at each other during flight. Social standings may also be determined through crest displays, wing spreading (to express submission) and an activity called “Aggressive Sliding.” To ward off predators, such as raptors, Steller’s Jays unite into mobs to use vocal and physical intimidation3.

Extremely vocal birds, Steller’s Jays are capable of a broad range of sounds and calls, including mimicking (the likes of dogs, cats, squirrels, chickens, other birds, and even some machines4.) Other sounds include squawks, screams, rattles, soft warbles, and piercing sheck sheck sheck screams5. Adult jays, while usually some of the most vocal birds in their habitats, are quiet and discreet when raising their young or robbing nests6.

Steller’s Jays have been known to live to approximately 16 years old.

Habitat: Steller’s Jays reside in mountainous coniferous and mixed forests of the North American West, where they can be spotted in the high canopy. They may also be found in arid woodlands in the American southwest and Mexico. Their habitats also include parks, campgrounds, and suburban areas.

Location: Steller’s Jay populations are generally resident and inhabit coniferous and mixed woods forests in western North America, from the southern coast of Alaska, through the Rocky Mountain Region (into eastern Colorado) and south into Mexico and Central America at elevations of 3,000’ to 10,000’. Along the Pacific Coast, Steller’s Jay populations tend to be found at lower elevations7.

Although Steller’s Jays are generally resident, some populations may migrate to lower elevations during winter months. Large irruptions in the fall and winter may also cause populations of Steller’s Jays to move into southern California, deserts of the American southwest, and the Great Plains. There has also been accidental population movement into Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas and central Texas8.

Diet: Steller’s Jays are generalist foragers, searching for food on the ground and in trees. Their omnivorous diets consist of two-thirds vegetable matter, including seeds, berries, and nuts. These jays are capable of carrying several large nuts or seeds simultaneously within their mouths and throats. Because they have developed spatial understanding and memory, Steller’s Jays are able to bury and store nuts and seeds for winter food caches. In addition to their own caches, it is common for Steller’s Jays to raid caches of other birds during winter months. Their diets also include insects, small rodents, reptiles, invertebrates and carrion. Steller’s Jays are habitual nest robbers and are known to eat eggs and nestlings. Populations living in close proximity to humans will eat garbage, bird feed and picnic fare9.

Reproduction: Steller’s Jays form long-term monogamous pairs that tend to remain together year round. Breeding generally occurs within dense coniferous forests, and begins with courting displays called “Sexual Sliding10.” Steller’s Jays have one brood per year. Nesting sites are selected by both mates who then collect materials and build the nest together. These nests are usually above ground, located on horizontal branches close to the trunk of a tree. One of only two species of New World Jays to use mud as a building material (the other is the Blue Jay,) Steller’s Jays construct cup-shaped nests of stems, moss, leaves, and sticks (all held together with mud.) These nests may be up to 17” in diameter, 7” tall and 2.5” to 3.5” in depth and are lined with pine needles, animal hair, rootlets and sometimes paper. Females are able to lay one egg per day, with typical clutches containing 2 to 6 blue-green eggs spotted with olive, brown or purple. The eggs are 1” to 1.4” in length and are incubated by the females for 16 days, although males have been known to share in incubation duties11. Both parents share in feeding their young. The chicks molt for the first time in 2 weeks and begin to fly at around 3 weeks of age, shortly after fledging. Although the fledglings begin foraging for their own food at one-month-old, parents continue to provide food for an additional month after their young fledge12.

As Blue Jay populations expand west, hybrids with Steller’s Jays are becoming more and more common.

Notes of Interest: Steller’s Jays received their namesake from naturalist Georg Steller. He first discovered this species in 1741 while exploring an Alaskan island as part of the crew of a Russian exploratory ship. Other species that share their namesake: Steller’s sea lions and Steller’s Sea-Eagles13. Over the last two decades, Steller’s Jay populations have expanded, infiltrating a broader range of habitats. As a result, the Steller’s Jay has become a much more common resident of towns and cities14.


White-crowned Sparrow – Zonotrichia leucophrys

General: I set a feeder up in front of a window in a garden close to the house and was surprised to see a flock of White-crowned Sparrows scurrying through the brushy borders. After research I found that their presence would be short lived since they were migrating north into Canada. After doing research I found this is a flocking bird and seeing a flock is common.(2) This is a stunning bird with really distinct markings.

White-crowned Sparrows will share their territories with Fox Sparrows, but chase Chipping Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos until they leave. (1)

White-Crowned Sparrows migrate across northern Canada and the western United States where it breeds. They nest either low in bushes or on the ground under shrubs. Females build nests out of twigs, coarse grasses, pine needles, moss, bark, and dead leaves. The female lays 3–7 pale green eggs spotted with brown. Incubation is 10 – 14 days. The chicks are born with sparse down feathers with closed eyes. They fledge in 8 – 10 days.

Identification: The White-crowned Sparrow is a large sparrow with a small bill and a long tail. White-Crowned Sparrows are approximately 5.9”–6.3” long and have a wingspan of about 8”-9.5”. They weigh between .8 – 1 oz. The head can look distinctly peaked or smooth and flat, depending on the bird’s attitude. The White-Crowned Sparrow has a black-and-white head, pale beak (pink or yellow), and crisp gray breast. The wings are brown with bars and the under-parts are grey. They are similar in appearance to the White-throated Sparrow but do not have the white throat markings or yellow marking on head.

Habitat: Look for White-crowned Sparrows in places where safe tangles of brush mix with open or grassy ground for foraging. For much of the United States, White-crowned Sparrows are most likely in winter (although two races live year round in the West, along the coast and in the mountains). (1)

Territory: Depending on time of year (see migration below) they are residents or transients in much of the US and Canada.

Migration: White-Crowned Sparrows migrate north to Alaska and northern Canada – from Manitoba to Newfoundland and into the western US mountain Areas (Washington and Oregon) in the spring. Their southern migration in the fall is to Southern US from Gulf States through to California north to New Jersey. They are year round residents in New Mexico and Arizona.

Food: The majority of foods White-crowned Sparrows eat are seeds, grains, fruit and insects such as caterpillars, beetles and other insects. (2)


(1)    Cornell University

Audubon Society Field Guide To North American Birds