The secret lives of sparrows

Wednesday 22nd April: Isolation Day 31

During my daily ‘exercise’ (or rather, sitting down with camera poised), my aim over the past week has been to capture the daily antics of a rather overlooked bird, the humble house sparrow. Not spectacularly coloured or great songsters but fascinating in their own right, they have always one of my favourites British birds and are well worth a second look.

Here in Aberystwyth, sheltered beside the high seawall is a small bramble patch which each summer is taken over by a noisy, busy flock of house sparrows who use this as a communal nesting site. (They also share this with a mallard who is currently incubating her own clutch of eggs deep inside the mound)

The nest site – see arrow

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‘Is that lady with the camera still watching us?…’

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The bramble patch doesn’t look like much, but to the sparrows it is the perfect home. The thorny branches keep the parents and their chicks relatively safe from predators whilst the nearby mud flat and surrounding banks also provide the birds with ample food, water and nesting materials.

Male sparrow with a grub in his beak

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Female house sparrow among the brambles

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A male inside his thorny home

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These house sparrows are fairly easy to get close to and observe, revealing a hidden world activity. The lives of these birds are anything but dull and over a few days I have witnessed and captured all kinds of interesting behaviour.

Here a male house sparrow is singing from the stone wall, so absorbed in his song that he allowed me to get very close indeed!

Singing male house sparrow

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Here you can clearly see at black patch of feathers on this male sparrow’s throat, extending to the chest. Every male has one of these characteristic ‘bibs’ with the size and darkness of the patch a symbol of the birds’ status within the flock. The large and darker the bib, the more dominant the male is.

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The male below would appear to a dominant individual, whilst the male below with a very small throat patch is much lower in the pecking order.

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Despite being social birds, the house sparrows flock is not completely harmonious it is not uncommon to see (and hear) squabbles breaking out. A common threat display is to crouch with the tail raised and fanned out, often with an open beak as this male is demonstrating nicely below.

House sparrow aggression

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To attract a mate, the male house dances around his chosen female, flicking his tail and bowing as shown in this very poor video clip below.

The male sparrow also sings close to his chosen nest site, occasionally with a beak full of nesting material to demonstrate his ability and his suitability as a partner.

Male with a feather in his beak to present to a potential mate

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The nest is constructed from with dried vegetation providing the main structure, with all kinds of other materials use for lining from fur to feathers, string and even paper.

Male sparrows carrying strands of vegetation

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As a female approaches, the male then quivers his wings and expands his throat feathers to make his black bib look more impressive.

Trying to catch the female’s eye with chest puffed out

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They will also hop around the female in a stiff legged, comical motion, although I haven’t been able to capture this on camera.

I did however capture this pair mating high up on the mound a little later. Unfortunately the photo is not great quality as it was taken from quite a distance and cropped, but still quite chuffed to get this on camera.

House sparrows mating – heavily cropped!

Beneath their bramble patch, when the tide is at it’s highest the water is within easy reach of the sparrows. This provides them with a refreshing drink and place to bathe whilst they are still just a quick bolt away from safety should a predator appear.

Male sparrow bathing

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If only I’d set the shutter speed just a little higher here I could have frozen the wings and achieved a sharper image..

Lift off!

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Another observation from my images is that several of the sparrows, in particular the females appear to have bald patches around their eyes. Breeding and rearing young is an exhausting business for such small birds, and can make them susceptible to parasites such as mites which can cause the loss of feathers, particularly around the head. Fortunately, aside from this the birds appeared otherwise in good health.

Female with bald patches around her eyes

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Photographing the birds as they move about through the brambles can be challenging, not only to spot the birds themselves but also to focus in between the twisted tangle of branches.

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Hide and seek?

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It does however produce some quite pleasing results, particularly when combined with the soft glow of the early evening light.

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Deep inside the vegetation, this male is all fluffed up and having a snooze!

Sleeping sparrow

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Share the ways you are staying in touch with nature during lockdown using hashtags:
#naturetherapy #mentalhealth #neednaturenow

All photographs copyright of Claire Stott/Grey Feather Photography © 2020
www.greyfeatherphotography.com

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