The Desert Sparrow (Passer simplex) is one of the most characteristic birds of the sandy deserts of North Africa. They favour oases and wadis with some vegetation, therefore often nesting in or near human habitation. In very remote areas, desert sparrows are often the only birds found in villages, but as more settlements appear and distances between them are reduced, House sparrows (Passer domesticus) soon start taking over.
Male Desert Sparrow.
Stronger and more prolific, House sparrows seem to be displacing their desert relatives from many of their traditional breeding areas in Morocco. They compete for the same food and use the same nesting holes in houses and buildings, forcing Desert sparrows to move deep inside the desert where the less specialized House sparrows have a harder time finding food.
The hotels and guesthouses lining the sand dunes at Erg Chebbi used to be a reliable place to find good numbers of these birds in Morocco, but every year there seems to be less of them around. Last February I only saw one pair among the many House Sparrow flocks. However, trends in Desert Sparrow population can be hard to asses given the erratic patterns of their movements; they often stop breeding in an area where they have been present for years and move to a totally new one for no apparent reason, although increasing House Sparrow numbers are almost certainly a factor.
House Sparrow (left) and Desert sparrows on a camel saddle, Erg Chebbi, Morocco.
Although not the most spectacular of birds (few desert species are), for those of us who love deserts and their fauna they are a real treat. Females look as cute as a Disney character, and can be very approachable when feeding on the ground. They often take advantage of spilled grain fed to dromedaries, as well as the many insects found among their dung; in fact, the main challenge when photographing them on the ground can be finding them on a dung-free patch...
Desert sparrows breed between March and August, either singly or in small colonies. Although they sometimes build nests in trees, in villages they usually nest inside holes in walls or roofs, lining them with wool, lint or anything they may find. The Emberiza Fund is currently researching a project in the Merzouga area of Morocco, to try and provide Desert sparrows with nest boxes that, by size and location, cannot be used by House sparrows.
For more photos of these and other Moroccan birds, go to my photo website
If you are interested in birding Erg Chebbi and other areas of Morocco, visit Boletas Birding