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Cape Sparrow
(Passer melanurus)

Cape Sparrow

General description

The male is the only sparrow in the region with a black head and distinctive white "C" extending from eye to ear coverts and down the neck.

The female has plain - not streaked - upper parts, pale greyish crown and nape and pale crescent on the head.

Juveniles are duller than females.

Name & classification

Scientific name:
Passer melanurus

Common names:
Cape Sparrow (English)
Gewone Mossie (Afrikaans)

Roberts VII english name:
Cape Sparrow

Roberts VII scientific name:
Passer melanurus

Old World Sparrows (Passeridae)

Further information



The Cape Sparrow mostly eats seeds, foraging in trees and on the ground. The larger seeds of cereals, wild grasses, and other small plants are preferred, with wheat and khakiweed (Alternanthera caracasana) being favourites.

Buds and soft fruits are also taken, causing considerable damage to agriculture. Insects are eaten, and nestlings seem to be fed exclusively on caterpillars.

The Cape Sparrow eats the soft shoots of plants, and probes in aloes for nectar, but these habits are not important sources of food.

The Cape sparrow is social, lives in flocks, and often breeds in colonies. Away from humans it is nomadic, and forms flocks of up to 200 birds. In cultivated and built up areas, smaller flocks form where food is provided for livestock or birds. In such places, it associates with other seed-eating birds. Birds from urban areas form flocks seasonally and fly out to nearby countryside to feed on ripening grain, returning at night to roost.

Cape sparrows prefer to roost in nests, and while wandering when not breeding, birds in uncultivated areas roost socially in old nests or dense bushes. In farmland and towns, birds build special nests for roosting, lined more poorly than breeding nests, but made of more insulating material.

An unusual social behaviour has been described from Cape sparrows in Johannesburg. Groups of 20–30 birds separate from larger flocks and stand close together on the ground with tails on the ground and heads held high. These groups sometimes move in an unconcerted fashion by hopping slowly. Often birds will fly up and hover 30–60 centimetres above the ground. During these gatherings birds are silent and are never antagonistic. This behaviour's significance is unknown, and it is not reported in any other sparrow.

The Cape sparrow utilises a variety of nesting sites, including holes as well as open locations. Bushes and trees, especially acacias, seem to be preferred. Many nests may be built in a single tree. Holes and other covered sites are chosen less frequently.

The untidy and relatively large nests are built mainly of dry grass and twigs, with a soft lining of plant down. Any leaves or thorns present in a nest tree are worked into the nest. In cavity nests, the hole is simply filled with a shapeless mass of grass with a cup of soft material containing the eggs on the inside.

The male and the female construct the nest together, keeping close when finding material and weaving it together.

Clutches contain between two and six eggs, typically three or four. Both parents incubate the eggs during the day, switching every ten or fifteen minutes. At night, only the female incubates the eggs, while the male roosts outside or in the nest.

The young hatch over two or three days and are brooded until their feathers develop and eyes open five days after hatching. The young are fed on insects until they fledge 16 to 25, typically 17, days after hatching. After this they are fed for one or two weeks.

These birds are hosts of the Diderick Cuckoo.

Natural distribution:
The Cape sparrow inhabits southern Africa south of Angola and as far east as Swaziland. The northernmost point in its range is Benguela in Angola, and it is found in the coastal and central parts of Namibia, except for the driest parts of the Namib Desert.

It occurs in all of South Africa except the farthest east, in southern Botswana and spottily in the Kalahari Basin of central Botswana.

In the east, it breeds at small number of localities in southeastern Zimbabwe. It has been recorded as a vagrant in Harare, in central Zimbabwe. The eastern limit of its range is reached in the wet forests of Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal, extending into the hills of western Swaziland.

The original habitats of this species were the semi-arid savanna, thornveld, and light woodland typical of southern Africa.

When settled agriculture arrived in its range about a thousand years ago, it adapted to cultivated land, and since the arrival of settlement, it has moved into towns.

When vineyards in the south-west Cape started letting weeds grow between vines to conserve moisture, around 1956, the Cape Sparrow moved in. Cape Sparrows quickly exhausted the seeds and started eating the grapes. The Cape Sparrow is now a serious pest in vineyards. However, vineyards are not optimal habitat and some populations have had such a low reproductive success that they could not be maintained without immigration.

The Cape Sparrow was featured on the lowest-denomination South African coin, from the farthing (¼-cent) in 1923 to the cent that ceased to be minted in 2002, with designs based on an original by George Kruger Gray. This was said to be because women interned at a concentration camp in Bethulie during the Boer War adopted a biblical quotation (from Matthew 10) as their motto: "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father." Additionally, it has been featured on stamps from Lesotho and the Central African Republic.

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