AskDefine | Define sparrow

Dictionary Definition



1 any of several small dull-colored singing birds feeding on seeds or insects [syn: true sparrow]
2 small brownish European songbird [syn: hedge sparrow, dunnock, Prunella modularis]

User Contributed Dictionary





  • /ˈspæɹəʊ/


  1. The house sparrow, Passer domesticus; a small bird with a short bill, and brown, white and gray feathers.
  2. A member of the family Passeridae, comprised of small Old World song birds.
  3. A member of the family Emberizidae, comprised of small New World song birds.
  4. Generically, any small, nondescript bird.


Extensive Definition

The "true sparrows", the Old World sparrows in the family Passeridae, are small passerine birds. Generally, sparrows tend to be small, plump brown-grey birds with short tails and stubby yet powerful beaks. The differences between sparrow species can be subtle. They are primarily seed-eaters, though they also consume small insects. A few species scavenge for food around cities and, like gulls or pigeons, will happily eat virtually anything in small quantities. This family ranges in size from the Chestnut Sparrow (Passer eminibey), at 11.4 cm (4.5 inches) and 13.4 g., to the Parrot-billed Sparrow (Passer gongonensis), at 18 cm (7 inches) and 42 g. (1.5 oz).
The Old World true sparrows are found indigenously in Europe, Africa and Asia. In Australia and the Americas, early settlers imported some species which quickly naturalised, particularly in urban and degraded areas. House Sparrows, for example, are now found throughout North America, in every state of Australia except Western Australia, and over much of the heavily populated parts of South America.
Some authorities also classify the closely related estrildid finches of the equatorial regions and Australasia as members of the Passeridae. Like the true sparrows, the estrildid finches are small, gregarious and often colonial seed-eaters with short, thick, but pointed bills. They are broadly similar in structure and habits, but tend to be very colourful and vary greatly in their plumage. About 140 species are native to the old world tropics and Australasia. Most taxonomic schemes list the estrildid finches as the separate family Estrildidae, leaving just the true sparrows in Passeridae.
American sparrows, or New World sparrows, are not closely related to the true sparrows, despite some physical resemblance, such as the seed-eater's bill and frequently well-marked heads. They are in the family Emberizidae.
The Hedge Sparrow or Dunnock (Prunella modularis) is similarly unrelated. It is a sparrow in name only, a relic of the old practice of calling any small bird a "sparrow".
There are 35 species of Old World sparrows. Below is the full list.

Species list in taxonomic order

Sparrows in literature

References to Old World sparrows in literature usually refer to the House Sparrow.
  • The Greek poet Sappho, in her "Hymn to Aphrodite", pictures the goddess's chariot as drawn by sparrows.
  • The Roman poet Catullus addresses one of his odes to his lover Lesbia's pet sparrow (‘Passer, deliciae meae puellae...’), and writes an elegy on its death (‘Lugete, o Veneres Cupidinesque...’). The sparrow's playful erotic intimacy with its mistress ('To whose seeking she often gives her first finger/And provokes sharp pecks') makes the poet envious. At the climax of its elegy he reproaches it for dying, and distressing her ('Now, by your deeds, my girl's/Little eyes are slightly swollen and red from weeping'). The diminutiveness of the sparrow, and the hugeness and eternity of the afterlife, form a bathos that is typical of the mock elegy form: ‘qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum/illuc unde negant redire quemquam’ ('He now goes on a journey through that gloomy place,/From where they say no one returns'). The sparrow's hopping is represented metrically.
  • In the New Testament, Jesus reassures his followers that not even a sparrow can fall without God's notice, and that their own more significant suffering is certainly seen and potentially forestalled or redeemed by God. (Luke 12:6; Matthew 10:29.)
  • The Venerable Bede's (8th c.)"sparrow in the hall" episode describes the moment of transition between Anglo-Saxon pagan and Christian eras. Ecclesiastical History of the English Church And People
  • In Phyllyp Sparowe (pub. c. 1505), by the English poet John Skelton, Jane Scrope's laments for her dead sparrow are mixed with antiphonal Latin liturgy from the Office of the Dead. It belongs to the same tradition as Catullus' poem, or Ovid's lament for a parrot in the Amores: 'And on me it wolde lepe/Whan I was aslepe,/And his fethers shake,/Wherewith he wolde make/Me often for to wake/And for to take him in/Upon my naked skyn'.
  • The bird is also alluded to in the line "He who lives by the stick, dies by the stick" in James Wilson's "The Stick Finch".
  • In the Redwall series of fantasy novels, sparrows are somewhat important to the plot. They are portrayed as fierce fighters; the main sparrow character is Warbeak.
  • In the Stephen King novel The Dark Half, sparrows are called psychopomps, creatures that carry spirits from the land of the dead to the land of the living.
  • Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, as Hamlet faces his tragic fate. he says, " There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow", presumably referencing the New Testament quote shown above.
  • In the Tamora Pierce series Protector of the Small, the main character, Keladry of Mindelan, is protected and aided by a small flock of sparrows led by a female sparrow - first Crown, and after Crown's death, Nari (meaning "thunder")
  • Masaoka Shiki`s haiku: "The sparrow hops along the veranda, with wet feet."


  • Clement, Harris and Davis, Finches and Sparrows ISBN 0-7136-8017-2 (hardcover) ISBN 0-7136-5203-9 (paperback)

External links

sparrow in Bulgarian: Врабчови
sparrow in Catalan: Passeridae
sparrow in Danish: Spurve
sparrow in German: Sperlinge
sparrow in Spanish: Passeridae
sparrow in Esperanto: Paseredoj
sparrow in French: Moineau
sparrow in Hebrew: דרוריים
sparrow in Croatian: Vrapci
sparrow in Italian: Passeridae
sparrow in Cornish: Golvan
sparrow in Swahili (macrolanguage): Shomoro
sparrow in Lithuanian: Žvirbliniai
sparrow in Hungarian: Verébfélék
sparrow in Dutch: Mussen en sneeuwvinken
sparrow in Japanese: スズメ亜科 (Sibley)
sparrow in Norwegian: Spurvefamilien
sparrow in Polish: Wróble
sparrow in Portuguese: Passeridae
sparrow in Russian: Воробьиные
sparrow in Finnish: Varpuset
sparrow in Swedish: Sparvfinkar
sparrow in Thai: นกกระจอก
sparrow in Turkish: Serçe
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