Note: The natural historian Francis Orpen Morris (1810-1893), author of the popular six-volume History of British Birds (1851-57), was particularly fond of sparrows. As his son Marmaduke Morris said in his memoir of him, "there was no bird that he defended with greater persistence and vehemence than the Sparrow. It was mainly in defence of the Sparrow that he and others gave evidence before a Committee of the House of Commons on Bird Protection in 1873" (153-54). Morris seethed over the snaring and shooting of small birds for sport, as well as over the shooting of seabirds for their feathers; and this plain, common little denizen of the towns was, said his son, "a bird for whom he was always prepared to do battle" (300). Morris goes so far as to devote eighteen pages to the sparrow in Vol. 3 of his History, to (for example) the skylark's seven and the the starling's six. This is the volume from which the illustration and following extracts are taken (see details in bibliography). Even stripped of the many anecdotes that enliven it, the account tells something about life on the streets of London, as well as meticulously documenting (without sentimentality) the habits and specifications of the bird itself. Morris was a leading campaigner on behalf of birds, prominent among those whose work led to the establishment of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

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Wherever this bird is met with, his character is as I have said, much the same — bold, pert, and familiar; "instead of the gentle and pleasing confidence displayed towards the human race by the Redbreast, the Nightingale, the Redstart, and some other small birds, the Sparrow shews a bold disregard that is far from engaging affection; as if our kindness and our enmity were alike despised. Instances are not wanting, however, of great attachment on the part of caged Sparrows for persons by whom they have been reared."

In London, where, as in most large towns, they abound, one has been known to perch on and under the moveable "café" of one of those examples of London Labour and the London Poor, who deserve far more commiseration than I fear even Mr. Mayhew's very able work will earn for them — from some at least — and there pick up its crumbs; nay, not only was it wont thus daily and hourly to do, but it was even accustomed to go the length of a whole street to meet him and it on the way from his home — from his nightly home to his daily one — whenever, and as often as he was detained, perhaps by the severity of a winter's morning. It would then ride back in the "café," wheeled along by him, to receive the reliques of the early meal which some industrious man would snatch on his way to his work — to "gather up the crumbs," though not from a "rich man's table." The Sparrow used to feed out of the hand of the said honest Patrick Corbett, to sit on his knee, and drink out of his cup; "she was unto him as a daughter." I say she, for it was a hen [75/76] bird; and for four successive years, with a brief interval, all her progeny, which must at the expiration of that period, have amounted, at the rate of two or three broods a year, and five or six young to a brood, to some fifty or sixty at least, were "brought out" under the matronage of their mother, to the morning and evening entertainments which Patrick Corbett gave. Doubtless they returned the compliment in the way of "concerts of ancient music," for even the chirp of a Sparrow must be music to the dweller in a London street.

The interval above alluded to was a space of some two or three months, during which time our female friend shunned the society of the keeper of the itinerant coffee-shop, who had, most unintentionally, wounded her maternal feelings. An individual Sparrow of one of her broods finding it at its first essay in the air, not so easy a thing to fly up as to fly down, was removed by Patrick, out of pure kindness, to his own house for the day, where it was treated with the greatest care and affection. Nevertheless it died, and the mother shewed her sense of the wrong of the supposed child-stealing, by abstaining for the period mentioned from the society of her patron and friend; but in process of time a new family arrived, and for their sakes she overgot the injury, made up the quarrel, which, as it takes two parties to make, and in this case there was only one, it was no difficult matter to do, and all went on, and for aught I know, may still go on, at the corner of Tavistock Square, as harmoniously and pleasantly as before: "adsit omen." [76]

For a considerable portion of the year, Sparrows are occupied in pairs in the bringing out their several broods of young, and when the last of these is able to fly, the old and young ones together repair to the fields, where, during the time that the corn is ripe, they are to be seen in large flocks, gathering in their own harvest; but when the crops are carried, and the gleaning is over, they soon repair to their former quarters, and renew their familiarity with the habitations of men. They may indeed at all times be considered as gregarious birds in some degree; at all events they are generally brought together in greater or less numbers, so that the "Sparrow that sitteth alone upon the house-top" has been well selected by the Psalmist as an emblem of forlorn melancholy. They shew considerable affection to each other, and anxiety for their young, and are spirited, courageous, energetic, [79/80] cautious, cunning, and voracious birds....

Sparrows are very fond of bathing, and also of dusting themselves in the roads, at all seasons of the year, as well as of sunning themselves, lying on one side in some warm and sheltered place, such as a gravel-walk, the roof of a house, or even against the wall of one. When not engaged in feeding, they perch on trees, bushes, and hedges, the tops of stacks and houses, walls and wood. At night they repose under the eaves of houses, about chimneys, in holes and crevices of buildings, in bushes, the sides of straw-stacks, and among ivy, or other evergreen plants with which walls are covered. They often live in their nests in the cold weather, repairing them with straw and feathers, either for their own warmth, or providing thus early for their future family.

"It is often remarked," says Dr. Stanley, "what impudent birds are London Sparrows! and not without reason. Born and bred in the bustle of the town, they must either live and jostle with the crowd, or look down from the house-tops and die of hunger. Naturally enough, they prefer the former; and all our London readers will, we are sure, testify to the cool intrepidity with which this familiar bird will pounce upon a bit of bread, or some other tempting morsel which happens to catch its eye upon the pavement, and with what triumph and exultation it bears it off to its mate, seated on some window-sill or coping-stone above, or followed, perhaps, by three or four disappointed companions, who were a moment too late in seizing the spoil." [80]

The flight of the Sparrow is undulated and rather rapid, but if only made for a short distance, nearly direct with a continued fluttering motion. On the ground, it advances by hops and leaps, both long and short. [83]

The late Dr. Stanley, Bishop of Norwich, in his entertaining work so often before referred to, writes, "Then for his nest — while other birds must select their own accustomed spots, the similar tree or bush, the same materials, etc., the Sparrow, like a bird who knows the world, is everywhere at home, and ready to establish himself wherever chance may happen to place him. If he lives remote from towns and cities, and the habitations of man, a tree answers his purpose, and a comfortable nest he will there build, with the rare addition of an arched top into the bargain, which possibly he may have learned from that knowing bird, the Magpie. In default of a tree or a house, a chink in a rock or a hole in a wall suits him; but after all, the nooks and eaves of buildings are his favourite resorts; accordingly in London, where he has his choice, he will often select droll places — amidst the carved foliage of some Corinthian column a projection of straws, with now and then a feather, announces a nest in preparation.

But some London Sparrows aspire still higher, one pair having actually built in the Lion's mouth, over Northumberland House, at Charing Cross. A still more extraordinary place was pitched upon by a north-country couple: — A coal vessel from Newcastle put into Nairn, in Scotland, and while there, two Sparrows were frequently observed to alight on [87/88] the top of the vessel's mast, while the vessel remained in port. This occasioned no great surprise to the crew; but after putting to sea, the two Sparrows were seen following the sloop, and having come up with her, resumed their posts at the top of the mast. Crumbs of bread were scattered upon the deck, with a view of enticing them down, of which they soon availed themselves; and after eating heartily, they again returned to the mast head. By the time the vessel had been two days at sea, they became much more familiar, and descended boldly for the purpose of feeding. The voyage was a long one, lasting for some days, when on reaching the River Tyne, to which they were bound, the nest with four young ones, was carefully taken down, and being put in the crevice of a ruined house, on the banks of the river, they continued to rear their brood.

When thus upon the subject of young Sparrows, we may direct attention to the very rapid growth of their feathers in hot weather. In the month of August a young one was taken from a nest, with neither down nor feathers upon it, the rudiments only of plumage being visible under the skin, on the back of the head and along the back; on the sides of the wings, the shafts of the quills had just pierced the skin. Eight days after, another young one was taken from the same nest, covered with feathers, and able to make some use of its wings. Another circumstance is worthy of notice. The old ones had adapted the food to their powers of digestion. The stomach of the first was weak, and filled almost entirely with insects, only one grain of wheat and a few of sand being found. In the second, the gizzard was become vastly more muscular, and contained nine grains of wheat whole, besides some smaller pieces, the remains of several beetles, and some larger gravel stones.

Another singular situation selected by these birds for their nest, was in a thorn bush, stuck, as one sometimes sees done, at the top of a chimney, either as a preventive of smoking, or to check the ingress of any creatures; and although it happened to be a kitchen chimney, and smoke was issuing from it throughout the whole day, there they completed their works of nidification, incubation, and probably of education. Occasionally a hedge is built in. One nest has been found in a passage, where servants were constantly passing and repassing. [88]

The Sparrow pairs early in the season, and two or three broods are reared each year. A pair built a nest, and laid several eggs, at Markle, near. East Linton, about the 15th. of December, 1842; a nest was found at Darley Abbey, near Derby, on the 20th. of December in the same year, contain[89/90]ing four eggs; and on the 22nd. of the following February one was observed building its nest in the spout of the school- room at the same place, by Robert John Bell, Esq., of Mickleover House, near Derby. Sometimes, and not very rarely, I believe, even four broods have been known to be produced in the same year. The young birds often come abroad before they are well able to provide by effective flight for their security, and thus individuals are frequently either pushed accidentally from the nests, or lose their footing and totter over, falling to the ground. Almost as soon as they are partially able to take care of themselves, they are attended by the male alone, and the female prepares again for a new family. As soon as the nest is ready, the first brood are left to themselves, but they still remain about the premises, roosting at night with other individuals either older or younger. The male birds, while the hen is sitting, roost somewhere in the neighbourhood. When the young are abroad and fed by the old ones, the latter carry them- selves in an erect manner, with a sort of pride in their deportment, and the former testify their wishes with a quivering of the wings and a constant chirping.

The first set of eggs generally consists of five or six. They are dull light grey, or greyish white, much spotted and streaked all over with ash-colour and dusky brown, varying much in appearance, though preserving for the most part, a general resemblance. They also differ very frequently and very much in size and shape.

The Sparrow is a stout thick-set bird. Male; length, a little over six inches to six and a quarter; bill, bluish lead- colour. From its base, which is yellowish in winter, a black streak runs backwards to the eye. Iris, hazel, that is, dark brown; the space in front of it has the feathers tipped with grey, as are those which compose a line under the eye, and one of a deep chesnut brown over it, which latter is terminated behind by a small white dot. From the eye a broad band of chesnut brown runs down each side of the neck, meeting together behind. Head on the crown, fine bluish grey in the summer, but more dull, by the tips of the feathers being faded, in the autumn and winter; neck on the sides, greyish white, fading into yellowish grey, on the front black, many of the feathers tipped with grey; nape, fine dark rufous brown. Chin and throat, deep black, but many of the feathers are tipped with grey in the autumn [90/91] and winter; breast, on the upper part meeting the throat, black as it also is, below, dull greyish or brownish white. Back, fine dark rufous brown on its upper part, the centre of each feather nearly black; on its lower part it is chesnut brownish grey, with a tinge of yellowish.

The wings, which expand to the width of nearly nine inches and a half, have the first three quill feathers nearly equal in length, but the third slightly longer than the first, and the second rather the longest of the three, the fourth a little shorter than the third, the fifth more than an eighth of an inch shorter than the fourth. Greater wing coverts, brownish black, broadly edged with pale rufous brown, and slightly tipped with dull white; of the lesser wing coverts, the first ones are brownish black tipped with white more or less extensively, and forming an oblique bar across each wing; sometimes half their length is of this colour; the rest are brownish red and partly black; primaries, blackish brown, with narrow outer edges of brownish yellow, and the inner more broadly margined with brownish red; tertiaries, broadly edged with rufous brown. Tail, dark brownish, the outer webs of the feathers blackish edged with lighter brown; it is rather short, and even at the end; it extends about an inch and a half beyond the closed wings; upper tail coverts, pale brownish grey with a tinge of dull green; under tail coverts, dusky grey in the centre. Legs and toes, bluish brown; claws, darker brown, thick and short.

In the female the plumage also becomes more dull in the autumn and winter. Length, from five inches and a half to six inches; bill, brown, but paler than in the male; iris, dark brown; over it is a streak of dull yellowish, and a dusky line passes through and behind it. Head on the crown, neck on the back, and nape, light dull greenish brown; chin, throat, and breast, pale dull yellowish brown, darker on the sides, the centres of the feathers darker than the rest. Back, dull brown, the edges of the feathers dull buff-colour.

The wings have the transverse band formed by the tips of the first row of the lesser wing coverts pale yellowish, or dull white; they expand to the width of nine inches and a third. Tail, brownish black, the edges of the feathers light yellowish brown; under tail coverts, dull brownish white. Legs, toes, and claws, lighter brown than in the male.

The young, when fledged, resemble the female, but are much lighter coloured; at the first moult after the autumn, [91/92] the males assume their adult plumage, but it is not till the next year that it is perfected. In the second season, the male has the bill greyish yellow or horn-colour above, and below with a faint tinge of red, the tip brown; from its base a broad band of obscure black runs down the front of the neck; in front of the eye the colour is blackish grey, and over it is a line of yellowish grey mixed with chesnut brown, extending down the neck. Head on the crown, brownish grey; the neck on the sides has some of the feathers with chesnut tips; in front it is light yellowish grey. Breast, light yellowish grey above, fading beneath into dull white; the back is light yellowish brown above, the inner webs of the feathers being brownish black at the tip, lower down it is light greenish dull grey. Greater wing coverts dusky, margined exteriorly with yellowish brown; lesser wing coverts, light brown, with a little pale yellowish brown or chesnut near the tips, and margined more broadly with yellowish brown; primaries, dusky, margined exteriorly with yellowish brown. Upper tail coverts, light greenish dull grey; under tail coverts, light yellowish grey; legs and toes, greyish yellow or horn-colour.

Variations of plumage in the Sparrow are not unfrequent. Thus, in one, the primaries and tail were white; another, shot by myself many years ago, in the parish of Taxal, Cheshire, near Chapel-on-le-Frith, Derbyshire, had some white feathers in the wings, and a few elsewhere. Another, a hen bird, was shot near Ipswich, Suffolk, of a dull white colour below, and a light cream-colour above; and another in the Butter Market in the same town, in October, 1850, with a dull white head. Specimens of an unvaried blackish brown are sometimes met with; some pure white; some cream-coloured. One white one had the red eyes which are generally seen in albinos; and the late Mr. Thompson, of Belfast, has recorded one in which the upper bill was nearly two inches long, and slightly twisted to one side, turning down also like that of the Curlew.

The plate is from a capital drawing by my friend the Rev. B. P. Alington, Rector of Swinhope, Lincolnshire. [92]


Morris, Francis Orpen. A History of British Birds. Vol. 3. London: Groombridge, 1862. Internet Archive. Contributed by Tisch Library, Tufts University. Web. 7 December 2016.

Created 7 December 2016