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Children's Nonfiction Birds

The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow

illustrated by Jan Thornhill

Groundwood Books Ltd
Initial publish date
Apr 2018
Birds, Environmental Conservation & Protection, Environmental Science & Ecosystems
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2018
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Nov 2019
    List Price

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Where to buy it

Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels

  • Age: 9 to 12
  • Grade: 4 to 7
  • Reading age: 9 to 12


“The content encourages us to reflect upon and evaluate the relationship between human beings and animals. This book leaves us with admiration for this feisty bird and hope for our world.” — Friends Journal

Behold the most despised bird in human history!

So begins Jan Thornhill’s riveting, beautifully illustrated story of the House Sparrow. She traces the history of this perky little bird, one of the most adaptable creatures on Earth, from its beginnings in the Middle East to its spread with the growth of agriculture into India, North Africa and Europe. Everywhere the House Sparrow went, it competed with humans for grain, becoming such a pest that in some places “sparrow catcher” became an actual job and bounties were paid to those who got rid of it.

But not everyone hated the House Sparrow, and in 1852, fifty pairs were released in New York City. In no time at all, the bird had spread from coast to coast. Then suddenly, at the turn of the century, as cars took over from horses and there was less grain to be found, its numbers began to decline. As our homes, gardens, cities and farmland have changed, providing fewer nesting and feeding opportunities, the House Sparrow’s numbers have begun to decline again — though in England and Holland this decline appears to be slowing. Perhaps this clever little bird is simply adapting once more.

This fascinating book includes the life history of the House Sparrow and descriptions of how the Ancient Egyptians fed it to the animals they later mummified, how it traveled to Great Britain as a stowaway on ships carrying Roman soldiers, and how its cousin, the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, was almost eradicated in China when Mao declared war on it. A wealth of back matter material is also supplied.

Key Text Features
further information

Correlates to the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts:

Describe the relationship between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in a text, using language that pertains to time, sequence, and cause/effect.

Use information gained from illustrations (e.g., maps, photographs) and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text (e.g., where, when, why, and how key events occur).

Explain events, procedures, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text, including what happened and why, based on specific information in the text.

Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text.

Determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.

About the author

Jan Thornhill is an author, illustrator and designer who brings her fascination with the natural world to her books for children. They include I Found a Dead Bird (National Parenting Publications Gold Award, Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction, Children’s Literature Roundtables of Canada Information Book Award); The Wildlife 123 (UNICEF-Ezra Jack Keats International Award for Excellence in Children’s Book Illustration, Governor General’s Award finalist); and The Wildlife ABC (Governor General’s Award finalist). Jan recently won the Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People. She spends her spare time in the woods obsessively collecting and cataloguing wild mushrooms and slime molds.

Jan Thornhill's profile page


  • Nominated, Silver Birch Book Award ‚Äî Non-Fiction
  • Commended, School Library Journal Best Books

Editorial Reviews

. . . masterfully conceived and beautifully illustrated . . . . Superbly designed nonfiction with a powerful environmental message.


With lively narrative writing and wonderfully detailed, painterly digital illustrations, Thornhill tells a meticulously researched history of the lowly grain-loving house sparrow …

Horn Book

Thornhill delivers sound science with breathtaking artwork and beautifully crafted words. . . . readers will gain respect for and understanding of this common, but triumphant, bird.


The visual appeal of the artwork is captivating. This book is highly recommended . . . It provides a fresh way of looking at history.

Resource Links

A complex, dark comedy of human behavior and a tenacious avian species . . . An exceptional selection for nonfiction collections; use it to deepen discussions on the relationship among humans, animals, and the environment.

School Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW

[Thornhill's] engaging and informative avian history bestows worth upon the sparrow's feathery back, recasting it from villain to valuable ally.


In her engrossing narrative . . . Thornhill revels in the irony of the sparrows’ “triumph,” even as she comments on complexities that add dimension to the story and point toward their uncertain future.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

. . . excellent research and storytelling skills . . .

CM Magazine

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