How to identify the variety of wintering sparrows
On my first birding field trip, years ago, the leader pointed toward the waving grasses and said, “There’s a sparrow over there.” My first reaction was a bit of disdain. “A sparrow? I’ve seen sparrows. What’s the big deal?”
He then identified it as a field sparrow and pointed out some distinguishing features to look for: pink beak, rusty cap, narrow white eye ring, and a weak song that rises in pitch. How could there be so many things to look for on a sparrow?
Later, I went through my field guide and realized how many different sparrows we could see in Minnesota. In fact, the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union has a checklist that lists 19 sparrow species that occur with some regularity in Minnesota.
I’d like to describe some of the wintering sparrows you might see in your yard, at your feeders, or when you’re out in “birdy” habitat. These sparrows range in length from 5 to 7 inches.
The American tree sparrow is a winter visitor from the Arctic tundra. It takes a little concentration to identify, but usually can be spotted by its rather twitchy behavior. It’s a ground feeder and seems to flick its tail and wings with every step it takes. When I see that, I get the binocs and look a little more closely.
The tree sparrow has a rusty cap, known in the bird-biz as a rufous crown. But perhaps most distinctive is the black dot in the middle of its otherwise unstreaked breast. I call that a tie tack, for those of us who remember neckties. You can usually see that dot without binoculars.
As a clincher for identification, it has a bi-colored beak: dark upper mandible, yellow lower mandible.
I’ve seen tree sparrows jump up on weed stalks and then drop down to the snow to pick up the seeds they’ve knocked off. Very resourceful.
The white-throated sparrow is most often seen during spring and fall migration, but there seem to be a few rugged individuals that stick around well into winter.
There are two morphs of the white-throated sparrow: one has a black crown with a white central stripe and white eyebrows; the other has a brown crown with a tan central stripe and eyebrows. Both versions have brown streaked backs, white wingbars and a distinctive yellow spot between the eye and the beak.
They often scratch at the ground with both feet at once, causing them to hop backward a bit with each stroke. Their song is “Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” At least that’s how I learned it. I have no idea what they’re actually singing.
By far the most easily recognized wintering sparrow is the dark-eyed junco, a bird that’s dark gray on the top and white underneath. It shows white outer tail feathers in flight. This sparrow breeds in Canada and seems to come south just as winter is on our doorstep.
Many folks call it the “Snowbird,” since the snow seems to follow close behind the juncos. One of our birding buddies, Ben, asks us not to tell him if we see a junco on our fall bird walks. He’s in denial about the approach of winter.
Another less common wintering sparrow, at least in our yard, is the song sparrow. This bird has a heavily streaked breast that often aggregates into a central breast spot. Its sides also have thick brown streaks. I find one or two song sparrows hanging around into December but seldom beyond that.
The song sparrow has a long, rounded tail that it pumps in flight. It seems to use it to help navigate its way through the cattail marshes it favors.
Now to the villain. When you mention sparrows to most people, they think of the ubiquitous English house sparrow. That’s the one we see nesting in our eaves, in traffic light poles, any cavity they can find and claim.
The English house sparrow is not a native North American bird. It was imported to the United States in the 19th century by some misguided guy who thought it would be great to bring to America all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.
The English house sparrow is aggressive, brutally attacking native birds to take over their nest cavities. They’ve been known to kill blue birds as they sit on their nest, puncture eggs of rivals and peck nestlings to death. Real gang-like behavior. We refer to non-natives as “exotic,” but there’s nothing exotic about these villains.
Most of the wintering sparrows are ground feeders and are drawn to millet and shelled sunflower seed. They come to my platform feeder, too.
I encourage you to watch for our true native sparrows and learn to identify these hardy wintering survivors. For me, they brighten a winter day.
Clay Christensen lives and writes in Lauderdale. His book, The Birdman of Lauderdale, is available in local bird stores and bookstores and at BirdmanBook.com.