a web page by Don Roberson
  • 40 species native to Eurasian and Africa
  • DR personal total: 28 species (70%), 8 photo'd
The Old World Sparrows [Passeridae] are familiar to most people, even those who are non-birders, because some of them are ubiquitous urban sparrows. Two species [House Sparrow, Eurasian Tree Sparrow] have been introduced to non-native urban habitats almost worldwide. I also think of them as birds of cold and blustery high elevations across Eurasia (i.e., snowfinches). Yet there are just as many species in Africa as anywhere else, and this sometimes comes as a surprise. This one (left) is the colorful Cape Sparrow, common in Cape Town and present in a wide range in southern Africa. The uniquely urban style of 'barbed wire' on which this one sits does suggest the commensal nature of genus Passer. Most of the species in the Passeridae are in the genus Passer (27 species, 68%).
It is hard to say which is the most familiar of all Old World Sparrows, but if you live in North America, where none are native, it is the House Sparrow (right; a black-bibbed male is shown). Native to the Holarctic, it is "introduced and thriving" in urban North and South America; in southern Africa; in eastern Australia; in the Bahamas, Azores, and Cape Verde islands; and in Tasmania, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island, among others (Clement et al. 1993). Considered a 'pest' species in many agricultural areas for feeding on grain much of the year, it may actually be beneficial to farmers because of the number of pest insects and larvae that it feeds to its many young (Summer-Smith 2009). Where weather permits it has two or three broods each year. It is been one of the most extensively studied bird species on earth, with over 4800 entries in a recent "bibliography of the genus Passer" (Lowther & Cink 1992).

The other globally widespread member genus Passer is Eurasian Tree Sparrow (left and below). This adaptable species occurs from sea-level (left, a photo from Sulawesi, where it was introduced) to high elevations. The nest-building bird below was at nearly 12,000' elevation (3600m in Qinghai, China.

Although Eurasian Tree Sparrow has been widely introduced to non-native lands — including the Eastern Ghats, India; Sulawesi and many islands in the Lesser Sundas; Philippines; southeast Australia; Micronesia; Hong Kong and Singapore — these introductions do not always thrive. Introductions to Bermuda, the Andaman Islands, and New Zealand in the 19th century were unsuccessful, probably owing to competition with introduced House Sparrows (Clement et al. 1993). An introduced population around St. Louis, Missouri, and adjacent Illinois and Kentucky, still exists and vagrants have appeared at some distance, but it is not taken off and expanded to much of temperate North America as has House Sparrow.

There are many more localized sparrows in genus Passer, but most of them are commensals with humans to some extent (17 of 27 per Summers-Smith 2009). The Plain-backed Sparrow of southeast Asia (right) is more rural than Eurasian Tree Sparrow, and is localized in occurrence, but still prefers man-altered habitats such as agricultural areas or the edges of villages.

In southern Europe, House Sparrow and Spanish Sparrow P. hispaniolensis interbreed where ranges meet, the hybrid zones are comparatively narrow. The taxa called Italian Sparrow P. italiae was recently been widely accepted at species level despite a degree of interbreeding.

In Africa there are a series of Passer sparrows adapted to open country and away from heavy forest. Recent studies have split populations of what was once the widespread Gray-headed Sparrow P. griseus (now Northern Gray-headed Sparrow) which have a range of bill sizes all the way up to bulbous bill of Parrot-billed Sparrow P. gongonensis. The prior Rufous Sparrow P. motitensis (now Great Rufous Sparrow) is split into four species.

The Passeridae also includes five species of Petronia (genus Petronia, sometimes called "rock sparrows"), that are generally small, drab birds of (often) rocky and arid habitats. An example is Rock Petronia (above left); it has a wide range from southern Europe and northwest Africa across the Middle East to high elevations in eastern China.

The other important group in the family are the snowfinches (genus Montifringilla). These are high-elevation species adapted to snow-colored and alpine habitats in Eurasia. They have sometimes been placed with fringillid finches in the past, but they are now clearly established as passerids (e.g., Johansson et al. 2008). White-winged Snowfinch M. nivalis (called just "Snow Finch" in some European literature) occurs at glacier edges and alpine habitats in a patchy distribution in montane Europe to the Tibetan Plateau. The rest of the snowfinches reside in stony or barren high-elevation plateaus in eastern Asia, from Tibet to Mongolia. Examples include Pére David's Snowfinch (above right, a very plain female) and Blanford's Snowfinch (below). In the family group (below) two begging youngsters confront a nicely-colored male in high stony desert at nearly 12,000' elevation (6300m) in Qinghai, China.

It should be mentioned that all other global checklists place the Cinnamon Ibon Hypocryptadius cinnamomeus, of montane Mindanao, Philippines, in the Passeridae. Using molecular methods, Fjeldså et al. (2010) shocked the ornithology world by showing this bird of cloud forests had evolved at the base of the Passeridae clade. The was shocking as it had traditionally been considered to be an unusual white-eye among the Zosteropidae. The name of the paper was "The Cinnamon Ibon Hypocryptadius cinnamomeus is a forest canopy sparrow," and now "everyone" lists this unique species among the Old World Sparrows. However, Fjeldså et al. (2010) opined that the Ibon had diverged from the rest of the Passeridae about 31 million years ago. This is much older than many other bird lineages that are now considered worthy of Family level designation. Perhaps there is reason to wish for substantiation of the timing of divergence, but for now, consistent with the apparent age of divergence, I have elevated it at Family level as the Hypocryptadiidae.

Photos: The Cape Sparrow Passer melanurus at Cape Town, South Africa, in March 2007. The male House Sparrow P. domesticus was photographed in Monterey, Calif., USA, where it is an introduced species. The large photo of Eurasian Tree Sparrow P. montanus is from Sulawesi, Indonesia, on 6 Oct 2011, and the nest-building male was in the Caka Valley, Qinghai, China, on 20 June 2004. The male Plain-backed Sparrow P. flaveolus was at Pak Thule, Thailand, on 22 Dec 2012. The Rock Petronia Petronia petronia was in the Caka Valley, Qinghai, China, on 20 June 2004. The female Pére David's Snowfinch Montifringilla davidiana was near Qinghai Lake, China, on 17 June 2004, and the male with fledglings Blanford's Snowfinch Montifringilla blanfordi were in the Caka Valley, Qinghai, China, the next day.

      All photos © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note:
Family book: Rating
Clement, P., A. Harris, and J. Davis. 1993. Finches and Sparrows: An Identification Guide. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N. J.

This is a rather thick contribution to the bird families of the world literature, nicely done by Princeton Univ. Press and better than the "average" recent publication in various other series. The Princeton Press books generally fall short of the excellent quality of the Oxford series, in my view. Both of these series use "field guide" style poses for the artwork, but the Oxford series excels in behavioral information and in having the leading experts on a family author the books. This one, however, a solid contribution that covers not only the Fringillidae, but the Estrildidae (waxbills and allies) and the Passeridae (Old World sparrows). It does not include the Emberizidae (New World sparrows and buntings). I have used this book much more often to check up topics on finches, and really have not seriously studied it for Passeridae.

Each species has a fine painting of both sexes (when they differ), details of identification and plumage, a summary of distribution, and brief comments on habitat, migration, measurements, and references. The subtitle "An Identification Guide" seems odd to me, because of necessity the book cannot delve into state-of-the-art details of identification, but rather presents a overview of the family throughout the world. It is actually a "mini-handbook" rather than an i.d. guide. For example, what this book says about separating Cassin's Finch Haemorhous cassinii and Purple Finch H. purpureus is accurate enough as generalizations, but there is insufficient space to detail such things as variation in western Purple Finches which include streaked undertail coverts (usually considered a feature of Cassin's) or to emphasize bill shapes. The European birder visiting America will likely separate the species adequately, but a local birder searching for a vagrant is as apt to be misled by the text as not. For this reason — and because of the Eurocentric choices for names (e.g., "Trumpeter Finch," unmodified, is a species, but then they use the modified term "Mongolian Trumpeter Finch" for another species) as well as some overly conservative taxonomy (e.g., failure to split the rosy-finches into four species; they lump the three American species with the Old World "Rosy-Finch") -- I downgrade this decent book from a "four star" to a "three star" entry.

A fine introduction to the Passeridae, with some excellent photos, is in Summers-Smith (2009).

Literature cited:

Clement, P., A. Harris, and J. Davis. 1993. Finches and Sparrows: An Identification Guide. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N. J.

Fjeldså, J., M. Irestedt, P.G.P. Ericson, and D. Zuccon. 2010. The Cinnamon Ibon Hypocryptadius cinnamomeus is a forest canopy sparrow. Ibis 152: 747–760.

Johansson, U.S., J. Fjeldså, and C.K. Bowie. 2008. Phylogenetic relationships within Passerida (Aves: Passeriformes): A review and a new molecular phylogeny based on three nuclear intron markers. Mol. Phylog. Evol. 48: 858–876.

Lowther, P.E., and C.L. Cink. 1992. "House Sparrow" in The Birds of North America (A. Poole, P. Stettenheim, and F. Gill, eds), No. 12. Acad. Nat. Sci., Philadelphia, and Amer. Ornith. Union, Washington, D.C.

Summers-Smith, J.D. 2009. Family Passeridae (Old World Sparrows), pp. 760 –813 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & D.A. Christie, eds). Vol. 14. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.




  page created 27-29 Feb 2016  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved