Sparrows are probably the most common birds in the world, yet they’re often overlooked. World Sparrow Day, celebrated on 20 March, reminds us to notice these wild visitors to our urban worlds.

Sparrows weren’t high on aspiring wildlife photographer Wisani Ngwenya’s list of subjects, but after being asked to photograph them for World Sparrow Day on 20 March, the Wild Shots Outreach graduate developed a new appreciation for these ubiquitous little birds. He shares his observations.

Pictures by Wisani Ngwenya.

I had seen sparrows before; they are often around at my old high school in Ludlow Village in Mpumalanga, but I didn’t see anything special about them. That began to change when I got an assignment to photograph them. I had never considered photographing these little brown birds before and I thought the assignment was a strange one.

Then I started to worry about how I was going to photograph them. They always fly away.

I googled sparrows and began to learn many interesting things about them; like that there are various species in South Africa (house sparrow, grey-headed sparrow, Cape sparrow, great sparrow and yellow-throated petronia), and that the ones I knew from school were house sparrows. The most common sparrows are house sparrows and they are everywhere humans are.

Did you know?

The Cape sparrow is near-endemic, found almost only in South Africa. The house sparrow was introduced to the country in the 1800s.

Sparrows in the spotlight

I went looking for sparrows in Hoedspruit, where I am completing an internship. Although they are all around, finding some was harder than I thought. I started looking at every wire, peering into bushes, and hanging around places I thought they might like. I found it interesting to know that they live near people, but most people never stop to look at them.

In search of sparrows I found that people confuse these little brown and white birds with other birds similar to them. Some people sent me to the wrong species of bird. Some people are concerned about their presence as they see them as an aggressive introduced species which has a negative impact on the local indigenous breeding sparrows. As a ‘spirit’ animal they seem to have different meanings. This small bird can symbolise joy and protection, but it can also be a symbol of simplicity and community.

From trying to find and photograph them, I saw they are often in a little group and interact with each other. My research confirmed they are generally social birds, with many species breeding in loose colonies and most species occurring in flocks during the non-breeding season. They are many different shades of brown and pretty if you look closely at them. I learnt you have to be patient to photograph birds and expect some disappointment. I took a lot of photos, without them being great. I also realised that if you are patient, the birds come closer to you. Despite their suggestive species name, Passer domesticus, they aren’t officially domesticated and easily startle and fly away.

After having tried to photograph them for the first time, I have started to think about sparrows differently. We know they are there, but we don’t give them attention. Photographing them turns our eyes to them. I’m pleased to share some of my favorite images to honour my little subjects and celebrate them this World Sparrow Day.

Why celebrate sparrows?

World Sparrow Day was declared not only to draw attention to these little birds, but to get people thinking about the wild animals that share our urban spaces. Even though house sparrows are such common birds, they are disappearing across their natural range. Nobody knows the exact reason for the declining numbers. It may be a combination of habitat destruction, lack of insect food and other factors. If we can improve the environment for sparrows, other wild creatures will also benefit.

Fast facts about sparrows

• The sparrow’s dull colouring is for camouflage when feeding on the ground.
• Sparrows don’t just like feeding and roosting together in flocks of their own species, they will even join other birds to look for food.
• They are omnivorous, eating seed, fruit, nectar and insects, as well as all sorts of food scraps.
• Sparrows are monogamous and form long-term or permanents bonds with a single partner.
• Both parents look after the chicks, feeding them a diet of insects at first and later plant material.
• There are records of black (melanistic) house sparrows, as well as white (leucistic) sparrows of all local species expect the great sparrow.