Sparrows

All posts tagged Sparrows

Ian Stewart

Sparrows are a mystery to most non-birders (and many birders too!) and it’s not hard to see why. The great majority of them are small, brown streaky birds that at this time of year are usually just glimpsed as they disappear into a tangle of undergrowth, so much so that sparrow sightings often get lumped into the catch-all category of ‘Little Brown Bird’ (hastily scribbled as ‘LBB’ in field notebooks from here to Alaska).

This is a great pity as sparrows are an under-appreciated group of birds in my opinion, and Delaware is awash with them during the winter because several species that breed as far away as northern Canada flood into our area and flock together with our resident sparrows. Tangled brush piles and weedy fields might not be attractive to an average human but they are very popular with sparrows who love to scuffle through them in search of seed as well as take cover in them if a hawk appears. On a good winter’s morning you might see more than half a dozen species of sparrow just by slowly walking along the edges of these brush piles and fields and waiting for them to appear.

A simple first step to identifying sparrows is to look at their breast as this lets you place them into one of two broad categories: those with streaked breasts and those with unstreaked breasts. The collage below is composed of sparrows banded during DNS’s Bird Conservation Program and up close you can see the differences between species in breast patterning, as well as the eyebrow stripes, moustaches and thin crown stripe found in many sparrows.

Top row (L to R). Song, Fox, Savannah 2nd row. Lincoln’s, Field, American Tree (showing ‘stickpin’ in breast) 3rd row. Swamp, Chipping (winter), Slate-colored Junco 4th row. White-crowned, White-throated (adult), White-throated (immature)

The collage below shows the diversity of sizes, shapes and colors seen in sparrows’ beaks. For example, the beak of Song Sparrows is intermediate in length and depth while Fox Sparrows have a short but stout beak and both Lincoln’s and Swamp Sparrows have long, thin beaks. Some sparrows have all-brown beaks while others have beaks that are gray (White-throated), orange (Field), pink (Junco) or jet black (Chipping Sparrow during the breeding season). The American Tree Sparrow has the most distinctive beak of all, being dark brown above but yellow below. There is also quite a lot of variation in the angle of the forehead, the size of the eye, and the curvature of the upper beak.

Top row (L to R). Song, Fox (with 2 ticks!) and Field 2nd row. Chipping (summer), Chipping (winter), Savannah 3rd row. Lincoln’s, Swamp, American Tree 4th row. White-throated, Slate-colored Junco, White-crowned (immature).

Hopefully these photographs have convinced you that sparrows are more different and beautiful than you had thought. My advice is to slowly explore the undergrowth on a crisp, still winter’s morning and try to get a good look at every species you see. Rest assured, you will be rewarded!

 

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.

Get to know the common, year-round Song Sparrow first with its brown and gray colored head and triangular "Elvis" mutton-chop sideburns.

Get to know the common, year-round Song Sparrow first with its brown and gray colored head and triangular “Elvis” mutton-chop sideburns.

Swamp Sparrows are found in Delaware in small numbers outside of the summer, and in the coastal zone year-round, where they breed.  They are confusing, but look like a Song Sparrow head without the mutton chop sideburns.  They also have a clear breast.

Swamp Sparrows are found in Delaware in small numbers outside of the summer, and in the coastal zone year-round, where they breed. They are confusing, but look like a Song Sparrow head without the mutton chop sideburns. They also have a clear breast.

White-throated Sparrows are very common backyard birds in the non-breeding season in Delaware with a very recognizable and beautiful facial pattern.

White-throated Sparrows are very common backyard birds in the non-breeding season in Delaware with a very recognizable and beautiful facial pattern.

White-crowned Sparrows are not common, but sometimes come to bird feeders.  They are found here at the same times of year as White-throated Sparrows, their relative.  This juvenile sports brownish stripes on a gray head.

White-crowned Sparrows are not common, but sometimes come to bird feeders. They are found here at the same times of year as White-throated Sparrows, their relative. This juvenile sports brownish stripes on a gray head.

Field Sparrows are fairly common year-round residents in Delaware.  The cute looking face with a blank gray cheek, and pink bill are a clue to its identity.

Field Sparrows are fairly common year-round residents in Delaware. The cute looking face with a blank gray cheek, and pink bill are a clue to its identity.

The Dark-eyed Junco is a sparrow too!  They are very distinctive and the males have a gray hood.  Females have a brown hood.  All of them have a white bill.  They are very common backyard birds, especially in late fall through early spring.

The Dark-eyed Junco is a sparrow too! They are very distinctive and the males have a gray hood. Females have a brown hood. All of them have a white bill. They are very common backyard birds, especially in late fall through early spring.

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 jim@delawarenaturesociety.org.