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Understanding House Sparrow calls

One of the most loved features of House Sparrows isn’t actually to do with its looks, but its voice. Laced with nostalgia, our cities were once defined by their rowdy chorus of chirps’ and tweets (leading to the collective term for House Sparrows: a quarrel).

Highly gregarious, House Sparrows have multiple calls, with the commonest three and their meanings described here:

Single Chirp. This is a loud, powerful call, and usually accompanied by a proud male, perched high on a fence post or telegraph pole, chest puffed out. It's often heard on its own as opposed to part of a crowd, given off by a single bird or a small group chirping "against" each-other.

(A video I took yesterday evening so you can hear what this call sounds like.)

It’s mostly the males that use it, showing off their manliness in a bid to attract a mate. However, the females do occasionally use it too, though it’s almost exclusively after their mate has died, and they're searching for a new one. And apparently you can tell when it’s a female calling, as the males allegedly call louder and more obnoxiously, like they're shouting, although I can't say I've ever really noticed that.

Higher-pitched, gentler Chirp. Just to confuse you, another chirp!

If you’ve ever seen a big group (or quarrel I should say*) of House Sparrows calling to each other, it’ll be this type of chirp (with maybe the odd call I mentioned above mixed in). When in a group, it can be hard to hear the individual sound, so you have to try and home in on an individual, but once heard clearly it can be distinguished easily from the other type of chirp.

(Again a recording to show you what it sounds like.)

Both males and females make this call, and it’s known as the more laid-back, friendly of the chirps, where friends and family are having a nice chat, having a good old time together. It’s also given off as a submissive call, if another sparrow of the same sex challenges them for food/territory, saying “it's cool, I don’t want to fight!”.

Chattering. And finally, by far the rarest and most confusing call, the chatter. It’s a bit like the word pasty in the English Language. The same word, but if someone wrote “that is a beautiful pasty-” would they be talking about Cornish Pasties, or if something looks pasty (as in sticky) and got interrupted.

This is because, depending on the context and gender of the call’s owner, the chatter could mean one of six different things…

First off, the males, as they’re a little easier to understand. They only chatter to other males, but it’s always bad news... Either it’s a warning, a sort of “I don’t want to fight or anything, but I will if you don't get out…” Or as a full-fledged, aggressive “come at me” prior to a fight.

Then there’re the females, who just try to confuse us, and you can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the males. Either a female will chatter as a way to warn her mate, telling him to get stuffed because she’s annoyed with him for something, or as a “welcome home honey, it’s so nice to see you! Did you get the groceries I asked for?”. The only problem is it sounds exactly the same!

She will also chatter to a prospect mate displaying to her (check out em_loves_nature ‘s blog on the awesome way House Sparrows do so: House Sparrows: Hedging your bets ( putting him out of his misery by saying she’s not interested. And finally, she’ll chatter to other females, generally as an aggressive/warning call, used when another female comes into her territory.

Those of you with keen ears might be able to pick up some chattering in the first video (one at 00:12 and a longer one at 00:15 + 00:16) but if not, the RSPB has a recording of it (although it is mixed in with the other two calls) here: House Sparrow Bird Facts | Passer Domesticus - The RSPB

Hope you enjoyed! Let me know what you thought/if you have anything to add to the meanings of the different Sparrow calls. Give me an email/message on social media if you have problems with the links etc, or if you’ve got a question/want to know a bit more, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

Thanks for reading.

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