For the Birds Radio Program: October Sparrows

Original Air Date: Oct. 19, 1987

Laura talks about the abundant birds under every northland feeder right now.

Audio missing


(Recording of a White-throated Sparrow)

All over Minnesota and Wisconsin right now, people are noticing sparrows. Juncoes, a unique genus of true sparrows, fly up from gravel roadsides at the sound of passing cars. Some of them are killed–impossible to miss when they fly straight into your car–but many more reach their wintering grounds from tropical Minneapolis down to the central and southern U.S.

If juncoes are the most abundant sparrow over most of our region, White-throated Sparrows are a close second. Few of them sing their “Old Sam Peabody” song in fall–the few males that do attempt it often produce a pretty sick melody with the notes trailing off pitifully at the end. Immature white- throats aren’t boldly marked like white-striped adults, but even with tan head stripes and fine breast streaking they still have the noticeable white bib that gives them their name.

White-crowned Sparrows are not as abundant as white- throats. This species is larger than juncoes and white- throats. A few of the striking adults migrate through the Northland in fall, but most of our migrants are immatures, which are probably the most misidentified sparrows of all. Young white-crowns have a buffy brown cap and are browner than the grayish adult white-crowns. Their pink bill confuses many people who think they must be Field Sparrows, but Field Sparrows are tiny–all white-crowns, adult or immature, are as big as bluebirds or thrushes.

The Harris’ Sparrow is another large sparrow coming through now. Adults are easy to identify with their bold black cap and bib–the only birds you’re likely to mistake them for are Lapland Longspurs or male House Sparrows. Longspurs are hardly ever found at feeders, but if you are having trouble figuring out if you have a longspur or a Harris’ Sparrow, the best way to tell them apart is to look at the tail–longspurs have short tails with white outer feathers. And the ear patch in Lapland Longspurs is very sharply defined.

Then there’s the Fox Sparrow, another thrush-sized sparrow. Just about all the Fox Sparrows in our listening area belong to the eastern race, which is rufous red like a fox. The breast of Fox Sparrows is heavily streaked with a large central spot, bolder than the similar pattern in the Song Sparrow. The most conspicuous field mark of a Fox Sparrow is its habit of scratching the ground with both feet to expose seeds beneath the leaf litter. I’ve identified a lot of Fox Sparrows fifty feet away out my kitchen window without wearing my eyeglasses because of this distinctive habit.

Many people confuse House Sparrows with native American Sparrows. If you’re listening instead of looking, House Sparrows are easy to identify–they cheep.

(Recording of a House Sparrow)

The feather edges of House Sparrows are browner than native sparrows, and House Sparrows usually stay with their own kind.

Many birders focus only on species that they consider unusual or somehow “quality” birds, ignoring common and even unpopular birds like House Sparrows. That’s not only snobbish, it also makes these people vulnerable to identification mistakes when confronted with a possible rarity. The more familiar you become with the avian rabble, the more alert you’ll become to the aristocrats and gems of the bird world.

(Recording of a Harris’s Sparrow)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”