For the Birds Radio Program: Sparrows

Original Air Date: April 24, 2002 Rerun Dates: May 25, 2004

Laura talks about the sparrows that migrate through each April

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A great pleasure in April is watching sparrows gather beneath our feeders. They scratch through the detritus of winter, filled with faith that just below the surface they’ll unearth treasures–food to nourish them for the day and sustain them through the rest of their journey home.

Fox Sparrows, large and robust, are eye-catching for size and their bright rusty rump and tail. Just about all sparrows optimistically scratch the ground, but Fox Sparrows do it with such gusto I can’t help but smile to see them.

Dark-eyed Juncos are usually the most abundant sparrows in late April. Males are quietly handsome with slate-colored, almost black, head and back, making a lovely contrast with their white belly and tail streamers. Henry David Thoreau described them as leaden skies above, snow beneath. Females and immatures are duller, but even they sport the white tail streamers that catch our eye as they fly away from us along country roads.

Along with these two easily-identified sparrows are several other species that take a bit more care to identify. American Tree Sparrows are distinctive for their rusty cap, rusty eye-line, and dark spot like a tie tack. Soon they’ll be displaced by Chipping Sparrows, with their equally rusty caps. Chippies have a black rather than rusty eye line, and lack a tie tack. They’re shaped different and there’s a little smudge of rusty on the shoulder of Tree Sparrows that chippies lack. But many people confuse the two, so I often hear early reports of Chippies that I’m pretty sure are really Tree Sparrows, and of late Tree Sparrows that are far more likely Chippies.

By May, a good feeding station can be inundated with White-throated Sparrows. A lot of them have striking white stripes on their heads, and they all have a white bib. People used to believe that it was the males with the bright head markings, and the females that have the more dull tan stripes. Now ornithologists realize that the head markings have nothing to do with sex–they are more similar to brown and blue eyes in humans. Interestingly, White-throated Sparrows breed assortatively, meaning they select their mates based on what they look like, and the white-striped ones virtually always choose tan-striped mates and vice-versa.

The white-striped heads make White-throated Sparrows distinctive, but not nearly as much as their song. The lovely whistled “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” is endlessly sweet and pretty to those ofus south of the border, but as soon as you get into Thunder Bay they change their tune to Old sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.”

Of course, White-throated Sparrows are not the only sparrows with white head stripes. White¬≠ crowned Sparrows are not nearly as abundant here in the northland as White-throats, but in May you’ll need to look close to be sure which is which. White-crowns are slightly larger, with a relatively smaller, flatter head and a thicker neck. They are also more grayish than brownish.

Song Sparrows are common just about everywhere, but except during migration aren’t nearly as common at feeders as many other sparrows. A lot of birders recognize them by the streaks on their breast, which coalesce in a large tie tack spot. But this alone is NOT diagnostic for the species, since many Savannah Sparrows have the same kind of streaking, as do some Lincoln’s Sparrows. Fortunately, Lincoln’s Sparrows have such lovely, delicate streaking, as if painted on with the finest tipped brush, that with practice they’re recognizable by just that.

Recognizing sparrows is rewarding, but the real joy comes from watching and listening to these homey little birds, the color and substance of the earth itself, warm and alive, nurturing our spirits in their quiet way, filling the space between the black and white of winter and the greening of spring. They aren’t spectacular like a Resplendent Quetzal, confiding like a chickadee, nor in-your-face exuberant like a Blue Jay, but they are testament to the simple joys and pleasures on this earth that we all share.