By Ian Stewart, Bird Bander
Sparrows are an identification challenge for just about all birders, including myself, as most of them are small, streaky and fairly dull in color (hence their nickname of ‘LBJs’, which stands for ‘Little Brown Jobs’). Telling them apart is made even harder by their skulking behavior, especially outside of the breeding season, with many of them only popping up to give you a brief glimpse before they duck back down into a pile of brush or long grass.
If you do spot a mystery sparrow a quick way to reduce the number of species it can be is to look at its breast. As lovers of the ‘Golden’ field guide to birds will know, you can quickly divide sparrows into those with a streaked breast and those with a plain breast. In my opinion, however, the best thing you can do is to try and get a good look at the bird’s head. We caught several species of sparrow during our bird banding pilot project at Ashland Nature Center and Bucktoe Creek Preserve and this provided a great opportunity to see the head differences at close range.
The ubiquitous Song Sparrow is common year-round in this area and is recognized by its heavily streaked head with rich chestnut patches, as well as a faint eye ring. The Savannah Sparrow is usually only found in this area during the winter or on migration and can be told by its brightly streaked paler face, usually with a yellow patch in front of the eye, and a pale eye ring. The swamp sparrow is a darker bird overall with a much more subdued head pattern, and has a broad greenish-cream streak above a gray face. Note that both the Savannah and Swamp sparrows have a proportionately longer, thinner beak than the song sparrow and presumably eat different types of seeds. The field sparrow is found here year-round and is told by its short orangey-pink bill and plain gray face with a dull brown cap. The individual seen here was a juvenile bird which still has a fleshy ‘gape’ at the corner of the beak and only a hint of the eye ring it will possess as an adult.
This is the time for Christmas Bird Counts. You are welcome to watch birds at your feeder and report them to the official following counts:
Wilmington, December 19
Bombay Hook, December 20
Middletown, December 27
Milford, December 30
Rehoboth, January 2
Cape Henlopen/Prime Hook, January 3
Seaford, January 4
If you want to know if you live in any of these Christmas Counts, and would like to contribute your sightings from your yard, or would like to participate with a group, contact the Count Compiler, Jim White at firstname.lastname@example.org.