The Golden Song Sparrow

Passer luteus

I can still remember my first trip out of Tasmania to the 'big island' of mainland Australia. Walking into specialist bird shops was a luxury that I had never been fortunate enough to experience before. Whilst at the Burwood Pet Shop in Victoria I spoke to the proprietor, Jock Hobbs, and marvelled at the variety of finches available in his shop cages. As I was about to leave he said, "I bet you have never seen a pair of these before." With a magicians flourish he produced a budgie show cage from beneath the counter and, with a grin, turned the cage to face me.
    'These' were a pair of Golden Song Sparrows, (Passer luteus). Until that moment I had only heard about them or read articles on them in bird magazines. The birds I saw were rather non-descript nervous birds which left me a little disappointed and wondering what the fuss and the price tag were all about. That was a number of years ago and it was to be many more years before I was to see them again.
    A phone call one morning from Les Lenton at Birdsville, a Sydney bird outlet, with an offer of 4 pairs of Song sparrows was too good to pass up. When they duly arrived they were half coloured and all 4 males were a dull yellow with the chestnut mantle just beginning to appear. My own 2 pairs of these went straight to nest and produced 14 young - 12 females and 2 males! But I still found these birds to be secretive, nervous and very drab - that is until I went to Cessnock! For it was at Cessnock that I finally got to meet John Butler whose aviary profile you might remember from The Just Finches magazine. After finally meeting John at his home we were invited out back to view his birds and aviaries. What song sparrows! Instead of the insipid, buff coloured males that we were used to there were these beautiful lemon males that shone in the NSW sunlight. Intending to make a complete idiot out of myself I suggested that these males must be a great age – "Last years young ‘uns son, only last years!" Negotiations were entered into and 3 of these males were taken back to Tassy to enhance our bloodlines and many people who saw them did not believe that they were the same species!
    After having waded this far you are probably wondering what the actual theme of this article is, funny that!!


Fig.1.Young male on left. Fig.2. AnotherView! Fig.3. Coloured Males.

 The Golden Song Sparrow or Sudan Golden Sparrow, (Passer luteus), is a 12-13cm long seedeater with dimorphic sexes. In their natural state they hail across the dry Savannah and semi desert of the southern Sahara region of Africa and are considered as being common, but nomadic, across much of their range. As previously mentioned, the cocks can be a striking lemon yellow on the head, breast and chest while the mantle, back and shoulder areas are a dark chestnut colour - a marked contrast to the yellow portion of the body. Males also have a black bill that becomes more pronounced as the breeding season approaches. This black on the beak is often the first sign that your youngsters are going to be males.
    The female is a drabber, buff coloured version of the male without the chestnut mantle or black beak. The only tinge of yellow on the hen is around the face and above the eyes but nowhere near the intensity of the male's colour. Some of our hens develop a dull yellow throat patch as they age.

At the onset of the breeding Season, usually September/October down here, the males emit a constant machine-gun like 'chipping'. If you are unsure of this 'descriptive definition' open your window, listen to a House sparrow, Passer domecticus, and multiply the noise by 10!! They leave you in no doubt that they are members of the sparrow family! Following this you will observe the males carrying twigs and small sticks to a potential site for their nest. We supply our birds with pliable 18cm lengths of green willow and gum - a diameter of around 5mm gives them something to think about! If you really wish to drive your birds mad give them longer sticks and watch the hilarity as they endeavour to fly these 'girders' up to their nests!
    However, before you get the impression that all these guys must be avian engineers some of our pairs just use a humble budgie-type nest box and leave the construction to their more energetic cousins. You can see from the pictures the contrast in styles. The pictured nest in a Genista bush measures 22cms in width and is 32cms high. The actual nesting chamber sits on the very top of this structure and not, as you might expect, in the middle. However, this season (2005) one pair in the front aviary beat even this structure with a nest that was built on a window ledge! It hung precariously into space and had a hidden nesting chamber right at the bottom nestled firmly against the window!! The nest hung 15cms over the ledge and would rock when the birds landed on it!
There is very little material that they wont use to construct their nests so it is essential that you supply copious amounts of feathers, cotton wool, shredded tissue, coconut fibre, basically anything…in order to prevent them from 'nest robbing' from neighbours to complete their own nest. Regardless of the size of the nest the inner egg chamber is filled with soft feathers and cotton wool that provides very comfortable and insulated bed for the developing chicks.

Fig.4. 'Modified' Box Nest! Fig.5.'Small' Bundle in Tree. Fig.6. 'Wee Pile' on Ledge!

   Two to four eggs are the normal clutch and the parents are devoted carers to their chicks - that is, as long as you provide PLENTY of live food! However, should you return from work and find youngsters on the floor then most pairs will tolerate you simply picking them up and replacing them in the nest – easy in nest boxes but not so easy in stick nests! This year I bred from a number of first year hens – given that 11 out of 12 youngsters from last year were hens it was no real problem! – And they experienced a lot if infertility and many would throw young from the nest even when the bowls were brimming with live food. Most of the chicks were around a week of age and I simply fed them by hand and replaced them in the appropriate nest box and the majority reached maturity. One chick was thrown out 6 times before his parents decided enough was enough and reared him dutifully! Much of this behaviour was possibly due to there being ‘hens without partners’ as there were only 2 adult males yet 4 hens were nesting!


Fig.7.Clear Eggs - Young Hens.

Fig.8. Youngster. Fig.9. Young Out Flying

You should expect 3-4 nests from the average pair. The same nest is often reused for subsequent clutches but some pairs will construct a new nest. One interesting observation that two breeders have made is that these birds do not appear to actively search for live food even when feeding chicks. My birds are fed in an inverted plastic rubbish bin lid and if the mealworms travel down to the handle area and are covered by bran they are not eaten - I have lost chicks when the parents were 'fooled' into believing I had not left them any live food in this manner! Another breeder has related exactly the same behaviour in his birds. Perhaps we are pampering them too much!! Anyway, it is 'food for thought' when setting up their feeding stations. They were also loathe to go into plastic tubs full of mealworms which I placed on the aviary floors when they had youngsters.


Our Song sparrows thrive on a good quality finch mix - we use Peppers Superior Finch Breeders Mix. During the breeding season they are also supplied with a product called Greens n' Grains (also from Peppers) - a mix of dried green seeds, which they relish when feeding young. They will also pick at golden delicious apples and are very fond of Lebanese Cucumbers. However, if you are contemplating some serious breeding, then you need to beware that their propensity for live food is enormous when chicks are in the nest. A fellow breeder calculated that 2 breeding pairs with young would consume around 250 mealworms a day plus an unknown (but very large!!) quantity of maggots. Crickets are also readily taken when available and it is indeed fortunate that I am able to supply these from my insect room!
If you are going to supply your birds with vitamin and dry soft food mixes be aware that these birds like nothing better than dust bathing in these substances! What isn't stuck to their feathers is invariably spread all over your aviary food trays. I have fooled a number of people with my ‘new pink mutation’ Song sparrows which were youngsters coated in PVM powder from the Australian Pigeon Company! So thick was the coating that the pink colour remained even after they bathed! Mind you, the water in the bowl was an interesting shade of pink!
These birds are undemanding in their requirements and, if supplied with plenty of insect food, should prove reliable parents. I have been asked, and have read similar things from other authors, whether there was a tendency for young Song sparrows to exhibit a phenomenon called 'going light' after they have fledged and before they have become fully adult. I must admit to never having seen this in our birds and a friend bred 55 birds a few years back and all of them made it through to maturity without any problems - and our 'variable climate' has a tendency to sort out weaker birds!


This bird exhibits a number of behaviours that make it undesirable in a mixed collection. Certain males have been known to show overt aggression around their nest site that is often directed towards other, usually more placid, species. I have kept them in mixed collections for years without any trouble but little apart from the song sparrows ever bred in the aviary! This statement was written after many years with the Song sparrow and was, until 2005, the truth. However, just to prove that nothing is ever black and white with birds, I was asked to ‘baby sit’ a pair this season and these dispelled the peaceful myth with a vengeance! The birds were placed into a 10 x 5m mixed aviary and immediately set about constructing a nest which promptly fell out of the tree! Not to be deterred they opted for a half-open nest box and proceeded to raise a family of two chicks. Unfortunately, this is where the trouble started for as soon as their chicks left the nest they systematically slaughtered many of the other inhabitants of the aviary. Most were young birds and they dispatched 16 young Orangebreast waxbills and 3 young Oriental greenfinches before I returned home from work! Needless to say this pair was put in solitary confinement for immediate return to their owner! Another anomaly is that as I write the other pair in the same aviary are feeding youngsters and these are sitting outside the nest alongside 3 similar aged Orangebreasts with no animosity being shown. Mind you the parent Orangebreasts do look a tad worried! What can we surmise from all this? I guess that some pairs of Song sparrows have the potential to be extremely nasty in a mixed collection whereas others are docile. They will only attack those weaker than themselves as shown by the youngsters they killed and a few adult hens. This is borne out by the fact that they attempted to attack a young Mexican (Black-headed yellow) siskin, Carduelis magellanicus, but when the adult cock retaliated they never attempted to attack the young Siskin again. Mind you I dare say I wouldn’t either given if an enraged Mexican siskin cock had just propelled me head first into the tin side of the aviary and then perched above me with wings lowered, beak agape, flicking from side to side while constantly twittering like a demented clock!
Before this season the worst I had ever seen was the end result of an attack by a male Song sparrow that left Red strawberries and Pied Red-face on the floor of a mate’s aviary- won’t happen with MY birds I thought! Uh, ha, oh well, serves me right!! These birds had shown very little aggression in the past but one day was all it took to revise our opinion of that!
As a result of their nervous disposition alone they often annoy other birds by their reaction when you enter their enclosure - it would appear that we must resemble the grim reaper to them. This constant agitation often proves too much for smaller waxbills and grassfinches and little breeding is achieved. This observation has been confirmed by a number of other breeders. My birds are now housed only with Diamond sparrows and Heck’s longtails both breed happily but even these are ill at ease around Song sparrows. Based upon this year’s observations maybe I should put a pair of Mexican siskins in with them! Larger birds, such as the Grenadier weavers, appear to hate them with a vengeance! We have often seen cock weavers sneaking along the perch towards unsuspecting sparrows, grabbing them and tossing them off the perch. None are harmed but it must give the weavers a chuckle, or is it merely getting their own back?
Another annoying trait, as previously mentioned, is that of dust bathing in vitamin supplements - an expensive exercise, especially if the dust bath follows a heavy session of bathing! Pink Song sparrows are a site to behold though! If you have larger sized shell grit in your aviaries this bird finds them irresistible. You will discover these large shells in the water bowls, in the seed bowls, all through the tea-tree and in any other place BUT where you actually would prefer it to remain! In holding aviaries, where there is no nesting material, the birds will place a cup full of large shell pieces in the tea-tree in an attempt to 'build' a nest - too bad for any unsuspecting ground birds when the structure invariable begins to collapse!!



Fig.11. Attacked Weaver. Fig.12. 'Pink' Mutation! Fig.13. Da Boys!!

The 'powers that be', in their infinite wisdom, decreed that this bird was to be placed on the Exotic Bird Register Scheme and you were once required to have a license to keep them. This had a disastrous effect on the demand for Song sparrows that saw their price plummet over a 3-year period. A number of larger breeders 'gave them up' and, for a while, they were harder to find. With the demise of this Scheme let us hope that interest in this species will continue to increase so that they will never again become scarce in Australian aviaries. If demand for them remains as it has been recently let’s hope they will never become a scarce item again – originally they commanded a $1500 price tag!


If you are looking for a species that is different from the majority of the Estrildid finches that we keep then the 'Songey' might just be the one for you! In a larger aviary you will be able to observe their courtship and breeding behaviour and as long as you have a large selection of live food on hand there should not be a problem with them raising young. They are best kept by themselves as a small colony of 2 plus pairs but I have bred them as a single pair in a large (10m x 5m) aviary with little interference to other inhabitants. However, in 4m x 4.5m aviaries, they were far too much for the other finches and now share these with only the Diamonds. Despite this their magnificent colour, gregarious nature and constant chatter make them high on my list of favourites. All I can say is thanks to John for those lemon-coloured males all those years ago and I have been told since that he was one of the devoted few that brought them ‘back from the brink’ many years ago!