For the Birds Radio Program: Sparrows

Original Air Date: Oct. 1, 1990

What sparrows migrate through the Northland this time of year, and how do we tell them apart? 4:07 Date verified

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During late September and early October, the most conspicuous birds at Northland feeders are sparrows. Some people are intimidated by them—the very word “sparrow” makes these little brown birds seem nondescript and difficult to identify. But all it takes is one good look at the striking head pattern of a White-crowned Sparrow, or the rich rusty tail of a Fox Sparrow, or the slate-colored body and white underside and white outer tail feathers of a junco, and it becomes obvious that at least a few sparrows are easy to identify.

It’s a simple matter to pick out White-throated Sparrows, in both their bold black-and-white marking phase and their more subtle brown-and-tan phase. The white-throat is more famous for its song than its plumage—this is the sparrow that sings Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, at least in the United States. North of the border, it changes its tune to Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.

Breast streaks coalescing in a bold center spot help identify Song Sparrows, who are also better known for their song. They start with two or three identical whistles or short notes and then break into a jumble.

Much finer, more delicate breast streaking is a good field mark for the shy Lincoln’s Sparrow, named not for Honest Abe but for an unrelated flunky of John James Audubon named Thomas Lincoln, who accompanied Audubon on a trip to Labrador and shot the first known specimen of this sparrow. Lincoln’s Sparrows sing their loud, rich summer song in bog country, but often lurk around feeders in fall.

As the last dapper Chipping Sparrows depart for the southern United States, they will be replaced by American Tree Sparrows, recognized by their rusty cap and eyeline and a black spot in the center of their breast like a tie tack. Lucky Northlanders may attract one or two Harris’s Sparrows to their feeders. These large, handsome birds are more common further west, but some years the prevailing westerly winds push a lot of them into our listening area. All of these typical backyard feeder sparrows are fairly easy to identify with a good field guide.

Birders who spend their time in open pastures and prairie habitats may see other sparrows–sparrows more subtly marked than woodland species. Savannah Sparrows, with breast streaking similar to Song Sparrows but with a slightly different face pattern and a yellowish spot in front of the eye, are common in open areas throughout the northland. Their soft, wheezy snore is easy to pick out from an open car window even at 55 miles per hour in spring and summer, but most people, including birders, filter it out as they zip along. Pretty little Clay-colored Sparrows, with their clean, softly-colored facial markings and gray nape, are often found at the edges of pastures where young spruce branches still touch the ground. These little guys sing a series of insect-like buzzes.

Another sparrow with an insect-like song is the tiny Le Conte’s Sparrow. It’s not much bigger than a grasshopper, and its song is even smaller. Le Conte’s Sparrows like wet meadows, the kind of habitat that is often drained to build shopping malls and used car lots, so Le Contes’s Sparrows aren’t as common as they used to be. But the soft, buffy eyebrow, black-and-white crown, gray cheeks, and lovely buffy breast of this shy little bird turn any sighting of it into a red-letter day.

In spite of their dull reputation, North American sparrows are a rich and varied group, and studying them can be a deeply satisfying and rewarding pastime.