Why is that sparrow chirping so much?
It’s not uncommon for sparrows to have frequent outbursts of chirping that make people stop and wonder what’s going on.
Luckily, the language of sparrows is actually quite simple to understand once you know how it works.
There are five main reasons why sparrows chirp, and the cause of this behavior can be identified by paying attention to the speed & intensity of their calls.
- Alarm Calls: Sparrows will chirp in alarm situations, like when a dangerous animal like a cat, owl or weasel is nearby
- Territorial Calls: Sparrows are quite territorial songbirds and will chirp aggressively when another sparrow comes too close to their territory
- Song/Courtship Calls: House sparrows make a repetitive chirping sound that acts as their song. These calls are used primarily by males to claim territory & attract mates.
- Companion/Contact Calls: Sparrows also have a much quieter sound used by mated pairs to stay in touch while feeding.
- Juvenile Calls: When sparrows are young, either in the nest or just after fledging, they will chirp repeatedly with a buzzy call to beg for food.
Every sparrow sound fits into one of these five categories. All you have to do is figure out which call is taking place.
This is done by listening to the actual qualities of the sound like speed, volume, intensity & number of sparrows involved.
When these sounds are combined with the body language & behavior of the sparrows making the call, it becomes fairly easy to interpret what’s happening.
So let’s walk through some audio examples of these calls, along with their associated body language so the next time you hear a sparrow chirping away, you’ll know why it’s happening.
How To Identify Sparrow Alarm Calls
Sparrow alarm calls sound like a loud, repetitive chirp being made at a localized position in the environment.
The body language is typically quite alert and frantic as the sparrow hops around trying to get a view of the animal causing a disturbance.
Here’s what a typical sparrow alarm sounds like in the presence of a cat, snake, raccoon or nest robber:
As with all bird alarm calls, it’s very important to observe the overall pattern of calling. Don’t just listen to the specific sound being made.
Instead, notice the speed and rate of repetition in the call. Notice there are actually two sparrows calling together in an off-beat pattern (musicians will recognize this pattern as a syncopated rhythm).
Another quality of alarms is they tend to continue for extended periods of time until the animal causing that alarm leaves the sparrows territory.
Different types of sparrows will have subtle differences in the way their alarm calls sound, but the overall rhythm of sparrow alarms is universal all around the world.
The easiest way for beginners to confirm whether you’re hearing a sparrow alarm is to observe the body language of the sparrow.
Alarmed sparrows look a bit like someone who lost their keys while in a rush to get out the door.
They frantically turn their head from side to side, trying to get a better view through the bushes. The sparrow may shift positions on the branch and hop around with great agitation.
Alternatively the sparrow may look out into the distance if a threat is not immediately local.
Sparrows commonly alarm at cats, weasels, owls, hawks, raccoons, possums, and pretty much any animal that gets too close to a nest (whether a nest robber or not).
These are all quite common occurrences, so don’t be surprised if you regularly hear sparrow alarms.
That said, you also don’t want to get caught in the trap of thinking every call you hear from a sparrow is an alarm.
The most common source of confusion are territorial aggression calls, so let’s look at that next…
Sparrow Territorial Aggression Calls
Territorial aggression calls are a loud, intense burst of chirping sounds directed towards other sparrows living nearby in the environment.
These typically only last a short period of time, and are often accompanied by aggressive body language like chasing & fighting between sparrows.
When you first start studying bird language, it’s easy to confuse aggression calls with alarms because typically the sparrow will be using the exact same sound as given during alarms.
The difference comes down to the length of time territorial calls last for, and the body language of the sparrow.
Look for sparrows flying rapidly towards other sparrows.
They may chase, or sometimes briefly scuffle with rapid flapping of wings in close proximity.
You may hear a rapid outburst of calls that sound very alarmed, however these sounds are relatively short lived.
Another good indicator that you’re observing territorial aggression is when the sparrow starts to sing immediately after the outburst, or alternates back and forth between singing & intense chirping.
Territorial aggression is most commonly seen between male birds during the nesting season, so being generally tuned in with the life stage and nesting behaviors of sparrows will help you identify this call.
The House Sparrow Has A Chirping Song
If you live in a town or city with plenty of buildings, it’s also possible that the chirping sounds you hear are being made by house sparrows.
House sparrows have a very simple song that’s a repetitive chirping sound repeating almost constantly during courtship situations and as a territorial display.
Most sparrows have much more distinct songs that are typically quite melodious and easily discerned from calls.
Yet for some reason house sparrows never developed a typical melodious song and to anyone who has spent time observing songbirds, this will stand out as unusual.
If you didn’t know this context, the house sparrow song could easily be perceived as a somewhat intense or agitated chirping.
For this reason, it’s always a good idea to try and identify which species of sparrow you’re hearing, especially in the area of house sparrow habitat.
House sparrows live against the side of buildings, on city streets, and often in fairly large groups. It’s common to see them sitting up on a balcony chirping away with no obvious source of agitation. This is just their way of singing!
As with all the examples in this article, you’ll find it much easier to make sense of these calls by trying to visually observe the bird so you can connect the body language with the sound.
When house sparrows are alarmed by something, they’re much more likely to group up and crowd around the source of alarm.
Sparrow Contact Calls Or Companion Calls
In all my years of studying and teaching bird language, I’d say contact calls (also called companion calls) are possibly the most misunderstood of all sounds made by sparrows.
This is probably because sparrow contact calls are extremely quiet, and many people just don’t know what to listen for.
Fast forward to the 2:56 mark to hear a great example of sparrow contact calls (it’s the high pitched “chip” repeating every 5 seconds):
These calls can typically only be heard from within several feet of the sparrow, and only if you’re listening very carefully.
The sound is soft, rhythmic, gentle & intended to be heard by a companion bird at close range.
Sparrows need to be in a very relaxed state before they will make this call, so if you scare them on approach it will take several minutes before they calm down and do it again.
Companion calls are made by sparrows in close proximity during feeding situations, or to coordinate movement around their territory.
Juvenile Sparrow Begging Calls
Juvenile begging calls are urgent, buzzy sounds made by young birds requesting food from their parents.
Here’s what it sounds like:
Juvenile begging is typically quite easy identify because the body language is so obvious.
It’s common to see juvenile sparrows sitting fully exposed on a low branch, shaking their wings like a toddler trying to get attention.
Their plumage will look similar to the adults, but with more spots and uneven plumage. They might look a bit fluffy around the edges because their adult feathers are still forming.
To confirm these are juveniles, simply wait around and keep watching for several minutes. You shouldn’t have to wait long before the parents show up with food in their mouths.
The buzzy juvenile calls might spike up for a short moment and then relax back down as they get their food. Then the parents fly off again and the behavior repeats all over again.
These calls will only happen at the later stage of nesting, so expect to hear these sounds during spring or early to mid summer.
Listen To Your Local Sparrows!
So now you know all five reasons why sparrows chirp.
Next time you encounter a sparrow making noise in the bushes, you’ll be all set to know exactly what it means!
It’s amazing to discover all that sparrows can tell us about our greater environment just by listening to their calls and watching their body language.
Humans have been using this language of sparrows to understand our surroundings for thousands of years.
All those crazy chatters, calls & chirps tell us the secrets of wildlife and help us live in harmony with nature.
Birds are an amazing pathway to greater love & appreciation for the outdoors, so get outside and listen to your local sparrows!
What and how causes a flock of sparrows feeding off of a berry bush during winter to spontaneously stop their loud disorganized chirping to stop all at the same time for a few seconds or a minute?
Brian Mertins says
Hi Bartos, the behavior you describe is often caused by a hawk present in the distance, but not immediately threatening them.
It’s like they’re torn between the urge to feed and needing to make sure the hawk doesn’t change position to hunt them. That’s why they cycle back and forth between feeding and alertness.
Pay attention to which direction they look during the pauses…
– Do they all look the same direction or are they facing many directions?
– What’s else is happening off in the distance?
– Can you hear any other birds giving alarm calls?
Keep investigating and you may get to see a hawk dashing around!