Get To Know The Sparrows

Among birders, sparrows tend to be disrespected or at least ignored. Most are small, drab little brown birds.

Brightly colored show stoppers such as yellow-throated warblers, Baltimore orioles, and scarlet tanagers usually steal the attention on spring bird walks.

Sparrows are certainly more subtle visually, but there are usually quite a few species everywhere. The soon to be published Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America by Rick Wright (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 19, 2019) might change that, at least a little.

Though Sparrows is lavishly illustrated with more than 300 striking color photos, it is not a field guide. But detailed descriptions of each species, some dating back to when the bird was first named, make it a historical identification guide.

In fact, Sparrows might be best described as a detailed example of how curious humans used art and science to create the taxonomy of sparrows. Though it lacks ecological details, distribution maps, and audio files, Sparrows provides a rich glimpse into a single branch of American ornithology.

With that introduction, let’s look at some of the common sparrows that frequent backyard feeding stations on cold winter days. Ground feeding sparrows are especially nice to have around because they help clean up the seeds other birds kick to the ground.

Song sparrows exemplify the classic LBB (little brown bird). Careful study, however, reveals several distinctive markings.

For example, they have a long, rounded tail, which they pump up and down when they fly. Their white throat is bordered by long dark stripes which suggest a mustache. And the white belly and chest are marked by heavy brown streaks that often converge into a central breast spot.

Dark-eyed Juncos are often called “snowbirds” because they are so often seen in winter. They usually arrive in mid-October.

Juncos are easy to recognize. The charcoal gray body contrasts with the white belly, white outer tail feathers, which flash in flight, and the bright pink bill. The body of female juncos is a duller brownish-gray.

White-throated and white-crowned Sparrows can be identified by distinctive facial patterns. White-throats sport a prominent white throat, black and white crown stripes, and broad eyebrow stripes which are yellow in front of the eye and white or tan behind it. White-crowns lack the bright white throat, and the head pattern consists of zebra-like bold black and white stripes.

Tree sparrows usually arrive shortly before Christmas from their breeding range in northern Canada and Alaska and are easy to identify. Look for a rusty crown, a fine rusty stripe behind the eye, two white wing bars, and, most importantly, a dark spot in the middle of an otherwise plain breast.

Despite the name, tree sparrows are not forest birds. They nest in northern Canada and Alaska among the stunted trees and shrubs that characterize the tundra. Visits by tree sparrows are particularly gratifying because they travel so far to reach our backyards. Here, tree sparrows inhabit old fields, forest edges, and marshes where they roam in flocks of 30 to 40 individuals. Within these flocks, smaller sub-groups of four to eight birds travel and feed together.

Another winter visitor from the north whose arrival often trails the holiday season is the fox sparrow. Among the largest sparrows, foxies measure about seven inches long and sport a bright rusty plumage. Heavy streaking across their chest converges to form a distinct central spot. When feeding, they make a lot of noise by kicking back the leaf litter with both feet like a towhee. Fox sparrows are unmistakable. When I see a fox sparrow, I’m reminded of a big rusty song sparrow.

A few years ago I devised a simple multi-level platform feeder to attract a greater variety of native sparrows. Place a three ft. by five ft. piece of exterior plywood on top of two sawhorses.

Then put two concrete blocks on top of the plywood and cover them with a smaller piece of plywood. Anchor the whole arrangement with another concrete block. This set-up creates a large, three-tiered covered platform feeder for native sparrows.


Send questions and comments to Dr. Shalaway at sshalaway@aol.com or 229 Cider Mill Dr., Apt. 102, Hendersonville, NC 28792.