Throwback Thursday: Winter Sparrows by Drew Weber Originally Posted 2/16/12
As I related in my last post on ducks, the winter months can appear to be a slow period for birding. However, in addition to ducks, there is another group of birds that is more diverse and easy to observe in the winter compared to the summer: the sparrows.
Sparrows have always had the bad rap of looking the same and being difficult to identify. They are often lumped into a group of birds called the “lbj’s” or “little brown jobbies”: birds that all look the same and aren’t worth the time it takes to identify them. To these folks I say: nonsense! With some patience, sparrow identification is pretty straightforward with most species having obvious features that can be used for identification.
Across much of North America, the Song Sparrow is the default sparrow. It is worth the time to really get to know the field marks of Song Sparrows. It has smudgy red-brown streaks on its chest and a spot in the center of its chest.
During the winter months, one of the most common sparrows is the White-throated Sparrow. Aptly named, the White-throated Sparrow has a bright white patch on its throat, as well as white stripes on its head that turn bright yellow near the beak. These are one of the most common feeder birds in many areas, especially when snow has covered up their more natural food sources.
A close relative, the White-crowned Sparrow, has bold black and white barring on its head. White-crowned Sparrows are less common at feeders, often tending to hang around overgrown hedgerows along fields. Depending on the habitat around your yard, you may be lucky enough to host these large sparrows.
Another easy to identify winter sparrow is the boldly patterned Dark-eyed Junco. Dark above and white below, the little twittering noises of these birds as they scavenge for seeds under my feeder always makes me happy. Juncos vary widely in their plumage across their range and it can be fun to scan through the flocks, looking for a ‘pink-sided’ junco.
The most northern of the winter sparrows is the American Tree Sparrow. With its red cap, it is superficially similar to the Chipping Sparrow, a summertime resident. However, the bi-colored bill and spot on the breast separate it from Chipping Sparrow.
These are the most common sparrows you will encounter during the winter in the northeast. Most of them have pretty distinctive features, so the next time you see a sparrow hopping under the feeder or in the shrubs, take the time to identify it and add it to the list of birds that you can quickly recognize.