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A photo of a Cape Sparrow (Passer melanurus), male
Cape Sparrow, Male

Cape Sparrow

Passer melanurus

The Cape sparrow, or 'mossie' as it is affectionately known, is a medium-sized bird measuring 14–16 centimeters in length. It boasts a distinctive plumage with large pale head stripes present in both sexes. The male is particularly striking with bold black and white markings on its head and neck, while the female is somewhat duller with a grey head. The plumage across both sexes is a blend of grey, brown, and chestnut hues.

Identification Tips

When identifying the Cape sparrow, look for the male's black head with a broad white mark curling from behind the eye to the throat, and a narrow black band connecting the black bib of the breast to the black of the head. The female, though less vivid, shares a similar pattern but with a grey head. Juveniles resemble females, but young males begin to show black head markings early on.

Habitat

The Cape sparrow is found in semi-arid savannah, cultivated areas, and urban environments. It has adapted well to human settlements and agriculture, often seen in parks, gardens, and other open spaces within towns.

Distribution

This species ranges from the central coast of Angola through Namibia, Botswana, southern Zimbabwe, and into eastern South Africa and Eswatini. It is less common in the driest parts of the Namib Desert and the wet forests of Limpopo and KwaZulu Natal.

Behaviour

Cape sparrows are highly social, forming large nomadic flocks when not breeding. They typically breed in colonies and exhibit a unique social behaviour in Johannesburg, where groups stand closely together in an unexplained ritual.

Song & Calls

The calls of the Cape sparrow are more musical and mellow than those of the house sparrow. The basic call, used in flight and while perching socially, can be transcribed as 'chissip' or 'chirrup'. Males have a loud call to advertise nest ownership, written as 'tweeng' or 'twileeng', which can extend into a repetitive song.

Breeding

Breeding usually occurs in colonies, with the nest constructed in a variety of sites including trees, bushes, cavities, or even disused nests of other species. Clutches typically contain three or four eggs, with both parents involved in the breeding process from nest building to feeding the young.

Similar Species

The Cape sparrow can be confused with the southern grey-headed sparrow and the house sparrow, but it is distinguished by its unique head markings and the male's distinctive plumage.

Diet and Feeding

Primarily seed-eaters, Cape sparrows forage in trees and on the ground, favoring larger seeds of cereals and wild grasses. They also consume buds, soft fruits, and insects, particularly when feeding nestlings.

Conservation status

The Cape sparrow is common throughout most of its range and is not significantly threatened by human activities. It is currently assessed as a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Cape Sparrow Sounds

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