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THROUGH THE WOODS: Winter sparrows

American tree sparrow. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

OUR PREDOMINANT SPARROW OF WINTER is our little American tree sparrow or Spizella arborea, whose genus of birds is often referred to affectionately as “spitzes.” This genus is also called another name that comes from their frustrating similarities as they flit around and defy identification, when birders declare “it is a little brown job” or LBJ. The tree sparrow travels down from the far north of Canada and arrives in our area in late fall about the time our slightly smaller chipping sparrow gathers into flocks of 30-50 birds and departs for the south. It is a changing of the guard for the birds.

Tree Sparrows are small (6.3” long), and the sexes appear alike. Adults differ from other Spizella sparrows by their rusty cap, yellow lower mandible (top one is gray to black), grayish-white underparts showing a dark central breast spot, and a longer wing. Back is streaked with black, buff, and brown; two conspicuous white wing bars are present. Bill is short and conical. Legs are pale brown with blackish feet. Juveniles are like adults but have a streaked brown cap and dusky streaks on breast and sides.

I remember seeing more numerous winter tree sparrows when I was a kid. Back then we had many more active dairy farms with lots of weedy fields, pastures, and hedgerows that provided cover and a source of food for these birds. As I rode my horse through frozen fields around our farms, we would scare up small flocks of 5-10 of these sparrows that called their beautiful jingled notes and tseet calls. Once you learn their signature sound it will be easy to single them out from the other LBJs.

At my current stage of life, I bird from my car or the house in winter. Passengers in my car are always complaining because regardless of the freezing temperatures I prefer to leave my window open so I can hear the birds. If you find a flock of small birds along the road find a safe place, pull over, and watch; the birds usually fly right back down again. They get seeds and bits of gravel to help grind the seeds in their crops. Cars become familiar to them, so they fly up to safety and fly down again after the cars pass.

In with the Tree Sparrows there are often other winter birds. Gray and white dark-eyed juncos are frequently in the mix. White-throated sparrows are larger with white under the chin and have white stripes on the head. Song sparrows have a rounded tail and look very stripy on the breast which has a prominent, dark central spot. The Savannah sparrow looks something like the song sparrow, but it has a short, notched tail, finer breast stripes, some yellow color between eye and bill, and has an overall paler appearance. To break up the drab sparrow colors there may be a brilliant treat, a gorgeous red male northern cardinal to cheer everyone, to catch the eye and divert one’s concentration from registering all those subtle sparrow differences.

The LBJs are an identification challenge to birders. The best way to conquer them is studying a good bird guide like Peterson’s “Field Guide to the Birds.” Or, for free help, go to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website. This internet site can also provide examples of bird songs and calls. And a good winter species to choose first is the unique little American tree sparrow found on bird feeders and in fields throughout our county.

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