If you’ve ever taken part in a Big Garden Birdwatch then you’re probably quite familiar with house sparrows. They’ve topped the annual survey every year in Scotland since 2012 and are regular visitors to our feeders all year round.

But what about their close relatives, tree sparrows? These birds are much more reclusive than our garden favourites, so read on and let’s get to know them a little better.

 

1. They have a few physical differences to house sparrows

While they share a lot of similarities, the most obvious contrast between the two species is that tree sparrows have a chestnut brown head, where house sparrows are grey. However if you look closely, there are a few more differences: tree sparrows are slightly smaller and have a tell-tale black spot on their cheeks.

Top ID tip for those who like word association: the bird has a brown head; tree bark is usually brown; therefore it must be a tree sparrow.

  

Note the differences in the head and face between tree sparrows (above) and house sparrows (below). Image credits: Andy Hay & Verity Hill

 

2. They’re more active than house sparrows

Whereas house sparrows tend to stick to one location, tree sparrows are much more likely to move around. Often that just means finding a new territory a few miles down the road, but on rare occasions, birds which have been ringed in France and the Netherlands have later shown up in the UK.

 

3. European tree sparrows don’t always live up to their name

Appropriately enough, house sparrows often nest in houses or other buildings in Scotland, whereas tree sparrows are more commonly found in hedgerows or woodland edges. It’s a different story on mainland Europe however, as both species regularly make their home in manmade structures. It must make it even more difficult to tell them apart!

It’s not unheard of for tree sparrows to nest in houses. Or house sparrows to nest in trees. It all gets a bit confusing. Image credit: Ben Andrew

 

4. They can have a very busy breeding season

With eggs taking about two weeks to hatch and chicks fledging after a further 2-3 weeks, house sparrows can often raise two or three clutches in a single year. Not only that, but once paired up, they will often eat, groom and bathe together. That’s true love right there.

 

5. They have suffered massive population declines, but there is cause for hope

Between 1970 and 2008, it was estimated that tree sparrows declined by a massive 93% across the UK. Recent surveys have shown more promise, indicating that they’ve since made a slight recovery and there are now around 200,000 pairs. While this may be cause for optimism, there’s a long way to go after hitting such a low point.

After a tough few decades, things could be looking up for tree sparrows. Image credit: Michael Harvey

 

Visit our website for more information on tree sparrows. Or if you’d like to spot some for yourself, our Loch of Strathbeg nature reserve is a great place to see them.

Header image credit: Ben Andrew

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