Richard Sparrow, son of Basil Sparrow and his wife Julia, was educated at Wellington College (a public school near Wokingham, Berkshire) and trained as an officer cadet at the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy (also in Berkshire). He joined the 7th Dragoon Guards as a second lieutenant in March 1892 and was promoted to lieutenant (May 1895), captain (April 1899) and major (August 1903). He married Cecily Mabel, born Garfit, widow of Captain H.P.L. Heyworth. During the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) he served in South Africa from 1899 to 1901, in the Remount Department, and was awarded the Queen's medal (3 clasps) and King's medal (2 clasps).
Sparrow listed his hobbies as hunting and fishing. After the Anglo-Boer War he remained in South Africa for several years, during which he collected and studied local birds. In 1903 he donated 63 bird's eggs from Natal to the South African Museum, several of them new to its collections. More eggs followed in 1904, including five new to the museum. During 1905 he presented birds from the Orange River Colony and Natal. Many of the eggs he collected were included in the (A.D.) Millar Collection in the Durban Natural History Museum and his work represented an important contribution to knowledge of the nesting habits of the birds of KwaZulu-Natal.
Sparrow was a member of the British Ornithologists' Union and in 1904 became a foundation member of the South African Ornithologists' Union. His "Supplementary notes on the nesting habits and eggs of certain South African birds ..." were sent to Alwin K. Haagner*, who prepared them for publication in the first issue of the Union's Journal (1905, Vol. 1(1), pp. 9-18). Later Sparrow published "Further notes on the occurrence and nesting of some South African birds" (1907, Vol. 3(1), pp. 5-9) and "Notes on the birds observed during a shooting trip in Portuguese East Africa" (1907, Vol. 3(2), pp. 174-180).
He appears to have left southern Africa not long after his visit to Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique), for in 1909 he was living in Sible Hedingham, Essex, England. He still resided there in 1920. Meanwhile he had served in France for four years during World War I (1914-1918), was promoted to lieutenant-colonel (December 1914) and colonel (December 1918), and became the commanding officer of the 7th Dragoon Guards. In 1916 he was honoured as a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) and in October 1918 was created a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). The latter award was made for conspicuous gallantry during an advance, when "under heavy fire his decisions were masterly and decisive, and showed the qualities of a brilliant leader" (Creagh & Humphris, 1978, p. 129). He retired in 1920. At some time he was elected a Fellow of both the Royal Geographical Society and the Zoological Society of London. By 1920 he was still a member of the South African Biological Society, successor to the South African Ornithologists' Union, and was keen to obtain eggs of Transvaal Bushveld birds in exchange for Indian and British eggs.