Cape Sparrow (Passer melanurus)

Cape Sparrow identification

Identification

Cape Sparrows are small, boldly patterned birds that are sexually dimorphic; in other words, males and females look different to one another. The key differences are in their heads: males have black heads with a broad white ‘c’ shape running from the eyes to the throat, and in females, the head is grey, and the white ‘c’ less distinct.

Male Cape Sparrow identification.
Male Cape Sparrow. Desire & Gregg Darling, Addo Elephant NP, Eastern Cape. 23 March 2014. BirdPix 7096.
Female Cape Sparrow identification.
Female Cape Sparrow. Fanie Rautenbach, West Beach, Western Cape. 26 August 2012. BirdPix 416.

Though facial colouration and pattern separate the two, both male and female sparrows have pale grey bellies, dark blackish bills, and a rich chestnut-brown rump and wings.

Male Cape Sparrow showing chestnut rump and wings.
Male Cape Sparrow showing off its chestnut-coloured rump and wings. Jorrie Jordaan, Redhouse, Eastern Cape. 8 May 2016. BirdPix 31189

Cape Sparrows are vocal, and as for many birds their repertoire consists of variations on three basic types of sound: song, contact call, and alarm.  

You can listen to each by clicking on the links above.

Habitat

Cape Sparrows eat a wide range of foods, and so are able to inhabit a variety of habitat types. They are common and often abundant in dry savanna, dry, shrubby woodland, agricultural land and orchards, as well as residential gardens and parks. These birds cope well in human environments and are often regular visitors to garden birdseed feeders. Within the Western Cape, Cape Sparrows may also be seen foraging in the intertidal zone along coastlines.

Examples of Cape Sparrow habitat.
Examples of Cape Sparrow habitat. Top L & R: urban/agricultural; lower L & R: dry, shrubby woodland.

Distribution

The SABAP2 distribution map for Cape Sparrow shows just how widespread these birds are!

Cape Sparrow distribution map.
SABAP2 distribution map for Cape Sparrow, downloaded 15 June 2021. Details for map interpretation here.

Though common across most of southern Africa, they are considered near-endemic. An endemic species is found only in southern Africa, and nowhere else in the world; a near-endemic species is almost confined to southern Africa, with a few populations along or just outside of border lines. The Cape Sparrow occurs sparsely in parts of Botswana and southern Zimbabwe, as well as the southwest of Angola.

Behaviour

Though sparrow behaviour and interactions are fascinating to explore, we will limit our scope to behaviours which are relevant to finding or identifying Cape Sparrows.

Cape Sparrows are gregarious, meaning that they are usually in pairs or groups.  

Flock of Cape Sparrows.
Small flock of Cape Sparrows. Jorrie Jordaan, Redhouse, Eastern Cape. 8 May 2016. BirdPix 31189

They often perch conspicuously on top of things—fence posts, bushes, trees, or rooftops. On the ground, rather than walking, they commonly use a “hopping” gait characteristic of many sparrows.

Cape Sparrow demonstrating "hopping" gait.
Female Cape Sparrow hopping in a garden. Karis Daniel, Alfalfa, Western Cape. 19 August 2020. BirdPix 126929

Cape Sparrows usually nest in colonies, with males and females working together to build messy, globe-shaped nests lined with feathers. Nest colonies are common in bushes and trees (often acacias), and within urban environments, individual nests may be built on infrastructure such as fence posts and gables.

Examples of Cape Sparrow nests.
Two examples of Cape Sparrow nests. L: nest behind a road signpost. Karis Daniel, Montagu, Western Cape. 14 September 2020. BirdPix 130732. R: nest in a residential garden. Dewald du Plessis, Bloemfontein, Free State. 4 August 2007. BirdPix 23794.

Further resources

Species text in the first bird atlas (1997)

Virtual Museum (BirdPix > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name)

More common names: Gewone Mossie (Afrikaans); Moineau mélanure (French); Kapsperling (German); Passero del Capo (Italian); Gorrión de El Cabo (Spanish)

Recommended citation format: Daniel KA 2021. Cape Sparrow Passer melanurus. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/2021/06/17/cape-sparrow-passer-melanurus/

Karis Daniel
Karis Daniel
Karis Daniel has been fascinated by birds since she was young, but while she was at university they became a passion. On a study abroad programme in South Africa, she was captivated by the diversity and abundance of bird life she encountered, and ultimately found herself drawn back to study them further. She completed her undergraduate studies at Wilson College in Pennsylvania. In 2017, she also received the opportunity to study wildlife ecology and conservation at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, where she completed her honours research and developed a focus on conservation science. Karis is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town.