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Geographical variation: New Zealand birds are assigned to the nominate subspecies domesticus. It lives mostly in close association with man. This ubiquity has led to many studies of it as a pest and of its physiology, energetics, behaviour, genetics and evolution. There is even a scientific journal devoted to work on the house sparrow and other Passer species. House sparrows were introduced to New Zealand first in the mid s.

They soon became abundant and were said to be combating plagues of agricultural pests. Sparrows have made their own way to offshore islands, breeding on those with human habitation. They have evolved differences in morphology in response to local environments. The best source of information on sparrow biology is the monograph by Summers-Smith, although adjustment for the six-month difference in seasons is necessary. Females and young lack the bib and are greyer, with lighter brown dorsal plumage than the male. Their underparts are plain grey, but their backs and wings are variegated several shades of brown and white.

The robust conical bill is black in breeding males, otherwise pale pinkish-brown. The eyes are dark brown and legs dull pink. The alarm call is harsher.

A Gathering of Sparrows by Lewis Stanek

Similar species: females and juveniles can be confused with dunnock, greenfinch or chaffinch. Dunnocks are smaller, with darker, more sombre plumage, and a slender dark bill. They usually stay close to cover, and are never in large flocks. Chaffinches differ in their distinctive double wing-bar and white outer tail. The young of greenfinches are greenish above their shorter tail. In comparison with finches, sparrow flight generally is more direct, almost laboured, and usually low. House sparrows are found everywhere except for high mountains and bush.

They are most abundant in the north and in drier eastern areas and in association with arable farming and human habitation, including towns and cities. House sparrows are a common breeding species on the Chatham Islands, and have been recorded as vagrants on the Snares, Antipodes, Auckland and Campbell Islands. Sparrows vie with silvereyes in being the most abundant New Zealand bird, at least near human habitation.

The population density in New Zealand is about 25 times that in comparable habitat in Britain, probably reflecting the scarcity of specialised predators of small birds in New Zealand. They are remarkably sedentary and even the large post-breeding flocks of late summer and early autumn venture no more than few kilometres from the breeding area. Survival rates are not known, but must be higher than at similar latitudes abroad, given the lower breeding productivity here.

Mass mortality can occur when autumn roosts are hit by heavy rain, or in unseasonable snowstorms. In , the New Zealand population suffered from an epidemic strain of Salmonella , but appears to have recovered. Populations in parts of Britain and north-western Europe declined significantly in the s and have not recovered to previous numbers. The cause of this is unknown, but there is no evidence that New Zealand populations have similarly suffered. House sparrows take ripening grain, mainly wheat and barley, although the impact varies from field to field and within an individual field.

Other damage, such as to seedling peas, apples, soft fruit and fruit tree buds is less, but can be significant to individual farmers. Breeding is semi-colonial, but nests are normally spaced over a metre apart, mainly in holes in buildings. The chirping male defends a small territory around the nest site. Eggs are laid from late September to early February. Incubation overnight is by the female; the male has no brood patch and plays a minor role by day only. The male feeds the nestlings more when the young are small, but the roles reverse for older nestlings.

Another clutch can be initiated within five days of a brood fledging, but the interval averages 10 days. The average clutch is 3. Given this, breeding productivity in New Zealand is remarkably low, averaging between 1. The sparrow is a flocking species, and is not often seen alone. Roosting is communal: sometimes several hundreds in dense shrubs or trees.

The diet in New Zealand is similar to that in temperate climes abroad. Adults eat mainly grain, including cereal and maize crops, but also the buds, flowers, nectar, fruit and seeds of a wide range of other introduced plants especially amaranth, birch, knotweed, meadow grass, fat-hen, chickweed and mouse-ear. Around towns and cities, much of the diet is human food scraps provided inadvertently or deliberately, especially bread. Invertebrates are a minor element of the adult diet, mainly beetles, grasshoppers, bugs, aphids, scale insects, caterpillars, craneflies, muscid flies and spiders.

Occasionally, sparrows hawk for flying insects, e. Small nestlings are fed predominantly on invertebrates. As the nestlings become older, their parents bring more vegetable matter, including the softer items of the adult diet, but still feed many invertebrates. Alley, M.

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An epidemic of salmonellosis caused by Salmonella typhimurium DT in wild birds and humans in New Zealand. New Zealand Veterinary Journal 50 : Baker, A. Evolution Child, P. Unusual nest sites of house sparrow and paradise duck. Notornis 22 : Dawson, D.

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Breeding in the house sparrow Passer domesticus L. Notornis 14 : Estimation of grain loss due to sparrows Passer domesticus in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Agricultural Research 13 : House sparrow, Passer domesticus L. Pp in Kendeigh, S. A questionnaire survey of bird damage to fruit. Heather, B. The field guide to the birds of New Zealand. Kendra, P.

Conspecific brood parasitism in the house sparrow. Wilson Bulletin : MacLeod, C. Diversity and Distributions 15 : Radio-tracking small farmland passerines: trade-offs in study design. Notornis 58 : MacMillan, B.

Food of house sparrows and greenfinches in a mixed farming district, HawkesBay, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Zoology 8 : New Zealand Journal of Zoology 12 : Want to discuss real-world problems, be involved in the most engaging discussions and hear from the journalists? Start your Independent Premium subscription today. Independent Premium Comments can be posted by members of our membership scheme, Independent Premium.

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