Lean birds in the city: Body size and condition of house sparrows along the urbanization gradient

A. Liker, Z. Papp, V. Bókony, Á Z. Lendvai

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1. Urbanized habitats differ from natural ones in several ecological features, including climate, food availability, strength of predation and competition. Although the effects of urbanization on avian community composition are well known, there is much less information about how individual birds are affected by these human-generated habitat differences. 2. In this study we investigated the relationships between the morphological characteristics and the degree of habitat urbanization in house sparrows, Passer domesticus (Linne 1758). We collected data for more than 1000 non-breeding adult birds in Hungary between 1997 and 2006, from seven sites including farmlands, suburban areas and city centres. 3. We found that the body mass, tarsus length and body condition of free-living sparrows differed among the sites: birds in more urbanized habitats were consistently smaller and in worse condition than birds in more rural habitats. A composite measure of habitat urbanization (based on building density, road density and vegetation cover) explained over 75% of variance between sites in the studied traits, after we controlled for the effects of sex, year, season and time of capture. 4. The difference in body mass between rural and urban sparrows was significant when birds were kept in aviaries under identical conditions, with constant ad libitum food availability. It is therefore unlikely that the reduced body size and condition of urban sparrows are a consequence of reduced access to food for adults (e.g. due to strong competition), or their short-term responses to high food predictability (e.g. by strategic mass regulation). 5. We suggest that habitat differences in nestling development or adaptive divergence of sparrow populations due to distinct environmental conditions (such as differing predation pressure) may account for the differences along the urbanization gradient.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)789-795
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Jul 1 2008



  • Food availability
  • Individual quality
  • Pollution
  • Predation
  • Urban birds

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology

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