Finches and sparrows are two of the most common urban birds in the United States. You’ve likely seen them in parks or spotted one in your backyard. Perhaps you’ve seen one flying in farms and forests.
But what are the similarities and differences between these two birds? And what makes them intriguing to many people?
What Is A Sparrow?
Arguably the most widely distributed bird in the world, the sparrow is a small, brown-colored bird that can grow up to 16 centimeters long.
This species is widespread throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America, and Australia.
Therefore, Antarctica is the only continent they haven’t conquered.
They are fondly called little brown jobs because of their stature and color. You can find them feeding on rooftops, or hopping around parks.
Their loud, chirping calls have also become very familiar to many people.
Through the years, the sparrow has become the general term for over 50 avian species.
Most of these species carry the name ‘sparrow’ such as European house sparrow and Egyptian house sparrow.
Two species– the Song Sparrow and the Chipping Sparrow– are native to North America.
However, other species like towhees, juncos, and buntings don’t have the word sparrow in their names. Yet they are still considered to be sparrows.
The house sparrow (scientific name Passer domesticus), though, is undeniably the most widely distributed worldwide.
This is also the bird species that are likely familiar to the ordinary Joe and Jane in the United States.
In North America, they are usually called English sparrow. It was introduced in North America in the mid-19th century and in just half a century, became widely distributed across the continent.
However, factors such as an increase in the number of predators have caused the decline of the bird in North America.
Sparrows have been around for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks, for example, considered them as a symbol of love.
In ancient Greek mythology, the small bird was said to be the bird of the goddess Aphrodite. The ancient Romans also revered the specie. One poem of the famous Roman poet Catullus mentioned this species as a symbol of enduring love.
The early Christians even believed that these small birds were present during Christ’s crucifixion.
One story went that swallows approached Jesus and removed the thorns from the crown.
Whether true or not, this story illustrates the high esteem and value that medieval people had for these cute birds.
Today, sparrows are a common sight in many cities around the world. You’ll see them in concrete jungles such as New York, particularly in parks and playgrounds.
What Does A Sparrow Look Like?
While the sparrow family has so much diversity, these birds do share many common characteristics.
Most sparrows grow to 16 centimeters or 6 inches long, although some species are shorter. The birds have the familiar ‘songbird’ look characterized by a medium-length tail and a deep chest.
Their conical-shaped bills are thick and short. This part of their body is tough enough to crack seed shells and grains.
The colors may range from gray, black, and yellow. The crown to the nape is typically colored gray. The size may differ, though, with some birds having a wide and deep crown. Others have a smaller gray patch.
Most sparrows also have a black patch on their breast, chin, and throat. However, the extent of the color also varies depending on the age and gender of the bird.
Younger sparrows, for instance, have a less noticeable black patch.
Older birds have larger and more prominent black patches.
Male house sparrows usually have gray heads and brighter colors compared with female house sparrows that have brown with gray underparts.
What Do Sparrows Eat?
Sparrows generally eat seeds. They can also feast on small animals. But their diet may also vary depending on the type.
For instance, house sparrows feed on grains, seeds, and livestock feed. The house sparrow may also eat discarded food, which is common in urban and rural areas. They’d even collect leftover food at picnic spots and outdoor cafes.
In some cases, they may also feed on small insects such as aphids and caterpillar. Because of its eating habits, a house sparrow can live in various spots of a house, including dryers, crevices, and air-conditioners.
Kenyan sparrows, on the other hand, feed on insects, seeds, grains, and small scraps. Insects are particularly an important source of protein for the young Kenyan sparrows. This species lives mostly in terrestrial lands, grassland, and shrub land.
In Europe, another type called the Italian sparrow mainly eats seeds, shell fragments, and arthropods. It lives in aquatic environments, arable land, pastureland, rural gardens, grass land, inland wetlands, and rocky areas.
The great sparrow feeds on seeds and cultivated cereals. Their young ones eat caterpillars, which serve as an excellent source of protein.
This bird is widespread in Africa, including countries like Angola, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. It lives in savanna grassland and shrub land.
Most house sparrows are active at daylight, meaning they are most likely to be eating during the day and reserving their energy at night.
According to Cornell Lab researchers, male and female sparrows take turns in dominating each other.
During spring and summer, females are more dominant over males, say the Cornell Lab scientists. Cornell Lab researchers add that male house sparrows dominate over their female counterparts during fall and winter seasons.
Where Do Sparrows Live?
Unlike most birds, house sparrows prefer to live near human settlements. It’s not surprising that they live in or near buildings.
They occasionally take up residence in large stores, warehouses, and food courts, or any area where they can get access to human food.
As they evolved, these bird species learned how not to get afraid of humans. In fact, they can get too close to humans. They can also be quite demanding for food and water. They’ll loudly chirp if they are not given food.
Families of sparrows can also be spotted picking up food in various parts of North American cities.
House sparrows also change their nests during the breeding season. The breeding season for these birds is from April to August.
They’ll nest in holes and crevices within buildings. Their nests can also be under bridges, roofs, and tree hollows during the breeding season. They can even build free-standing nests in creepers against walls.
What Are Finches?
Like sparrows, finches are small, seed-eating songbirds with conical bills. And they are also widely distributed, particularly in the temperate regions of Asia, Africa, and South America.
Just like sparrows, the term finch has become loosely used to refer to a group of small birds.
In the past, these birds were classified into various families, such as Carduelidae, Estildidae, Emberizidae, and Fringillidae.
But now, most birders and scientists like those from Cornell Lab acknowledge the classification of finches into the Fringillidae family. Bunting, cardinal, canary, chaffinch, crossbill, goldfinch, grass finch, and weaver are just some of the species categorized as pinches.
The house finch is perhaps the most common of those species. This highly sociable species is noted for its coloration and amiable demeanor.
It usually forms flocks but may become solitary when it is breeding. Male and female birds differ in color. The males in bright red plumage while the adult female house finch has a plain gray to brown coloration.
Another popular finch species is the purple finch. Like other forest birds, purple finch is chunky. They have short tails and powerful, conical beaks. These two species are widely distributed in the United States.
Finches have also been immortalized through the years, particularly in the arts and literature in Europe back in the old days. The early Christians often represented the human soul as birds, particularly the European finch.
Legend has it, too, that a goldfinch attempted to remove the crown of thorns from the head of Jesus Christ.
The thorn was believed to have pierced the beak of the goldfinch, which explains why the said bird has a red splotch on its face.
The goldfinch was also regularly depicted in Medieval and Renaissance art. Many paintings during those ages depicted Christ and Mary holding the bird.
In literature, finches are often depicted as caged pets to symbolize repressed humanity. Freed finches symbolize liberty.
The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam wrote poems with the goldfinch as the subject after his imprisonment in the 20th century, while 18th century poet William Cowper did the same years before.
What Does A Finch Look Like?
Generally speaking, the house finch has forked tails, pointed wings, and rounded or elongated bodies.
The house finch has round heads. Their bills are shaped like cones. But some types of finches have longer and sharper bills depending on the kind of food they feed on.
Finches are multi-colored birds. Their beauty is one reason why these birds are popular house pets.
The Gouldian finch, for instance, is known worldwide for its beautiful plumage.
In fact, you can mistake them for a handcrafted statuette with their beautiful and colorful feathers. The bird was named after Elizabeth Gould, the wife of an English ornithologist who decreed that the bird is the most beautiful bird in the world.
It comes in a variety of gorgeous colors that its names differ depending on the color of its head. You’ll come across names such as black-headed, yellow-headed, and red-headed Gouldian finch.
The zebra finch is another type of finch that’s well-loved for its attractive plumage.
As its name suggests, it has zebra-like stripes across the chest and neck. Its tail, meanwhile, is colored black and white. The adult male is colored gray with bright red patches on the cheeks, black tear drop, and a bright red beak.
On the other hand, female house finches commonly have a pale orange beak. Many birders agree that the zebra finch is the most popular type of finch in the United States due to its plumage and ease of maintenance.
This is considered an ideal beginner’s bird.
What Do Finches Eat?
Finches are also seed eaters, too, like house sparrows. They can feed on seeds from weeds, plants, berries, and pine cones. And just like house sparrows, their diet may vary according to their type.
For example, the red cross bill finch primarily feeds on pine cones.
Most finches, though, consume seeds, which makes them granivores. There are also finches that eat leaf buds, seeds, and berries. Others will feed on the seeds of fruits.
If you wish to take care of house finches as pets, you should give them about 2 teaspoons of seeds a day.
Here’s one thing to remember about taking care of house finches: they determine which house finch eats first.
Therefore, it is advisable that you put the same amount of seeds so that all house finches will get enough food for the day.
House finches also toss out their least favorite foods, so you’ll know which type of food to give them the next time around.
House finches must also be given fruits. Veterinarians say that house finches’ daily diet must consist of up to 25% of fruits and vegetables.
Again, house finches have this natural instinct to eat the seeds first before the fruit itself.
If you’re to give fruits to a house finch, make sure to wash the fruit first before giving it to the bird finch. You should not give avocado to a house finch as this fruit is toxic to the bird.
House finches love feeding on vegetables, too. Beans and peas are ideal for breeding house finches. Green and leafy ones are ideal for house finches, but these must be cut into smaller pieces.
House finches would enjoy chopping up the vegetables and seeking the seeds first. But avoid feeding them with pale vegetables as these have little nutritional value to the birds.
But how about formulated foods?
Is it advisable to give pellets, crumbles, and mashes to house finches?
Yes, house finches can get enough nutrition from these formulated foods, especially during the breeding season. It is also advisable to mix powdered foods with seeds first so that the house finch will get used to it.
Veterinarians say a teaspoon of formula food should boost the nutrition of both male and female house finches. This can also be valuable during the breeding season.
The Major Differences Between Sparrows and Finches Identified
Sparrows are often mistaken for finches because of their height, colors, and other physical traits. Even some experienced birders find it difficult to distinguish the difference between the two groups
Most novice birders may even ask: “are there red sparrows?” The answer to that is no.
If you’ve spotted a small bird with red plumage, that’s unlikely to be a sparrow red. You’ve likely seen a house finch.
House male finches often have red breasts and faces. According to Cornell Lab scientists, male house finches are also known for their long and twittering call. In contrast, the males of sparrows typically have white cheeks and gray head.
Sparrows are slightly longer than finches, growing up to 6 inches while the latter can only grow up to 5 inches.
Another difference between the two species is the shape and size of the body. Sparrows are medium-sized birds with short legs, a short bill, and a rounded head.
A sparrow’s tail is round, and his wings are broader in comparison to his body. Finches are smaller than the sparrow, with large beaks and flat heads.
A finch’s wings will appear short compared to his body, and his tail will contain a noticeable notch at the end.
There are also differences in the appearance of the beaks of finches and sparrows. Finches have large, thick grayish beaks.
On the other hand, the bill of sparrows is either black or yellow, depending on the gender and breeding stage of the bird. Moreover, sparrows have smaller bills than finches.
Finches are traditionally kept as pets, unlike sparrows, which have become quite a nuisance, especially city dwellers.
Zebra finches, Gouldian, and owl finches are the other species that are popular as pets.
This is not to say that you can’t keep sparrows as pets. There are some people who do keep sparrows as house pets.
But because of their plain appearance and widespread distribution, sparrows are rarely held in captivity by humans.