Speaking of Nature: The easy-to-spot sparrow

  • This adult white-throated sparrow sports black and white stripes on the head and vibrant patches of yellow just above the nostrils and eyes. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson


For the Recorder
Published: 12/10/2018 6:00:19 AM

I realize now that I got so swept up by the fact that I had set a new personal birding record for the month of November that I completely forgot I was in the middle of a series on sparrow identification. I was all set to culminate the series with the third species that I had lined up, but then Thanksgiving arrived, I was thrown completely off my writing rhythm by the presence of house guests, and I lost track of things. So let’s review where we’ve been before we proceed.

I started this series with the house sparrow (Passer domesticus). This species is perhaps the most ubiquitous sparrow in our area, but you have to live in the correct habitat to see one. House sparrows were brought to this country in 1853 and released into Central Park in New York City. Because those particular individuals had been imported from England, the species was known as the English sparrow, which was the name I learned when I was a boy. Today the official name for the species is house sparrow.

House sparrows are easily found in urban areas, like Boston and Springfield. They also thrive in smaller cities like Greenfield. In fact, house sparrows will do quite well almost anywhere that there are people, but they need food and nesting resources that are provided by either dense human settlement or agriculture (especially areas with livestock). Thus, readers who live in densely forested areas are unlikely to see any house sparrows.

After introducing the house sparrow, I moved on to the American tree sparrow (Spizelloides arborea). Unlike the sedentary house sparrow, which resides in our area year-round and shows no seasonal movement that could be called migration, the tree sparrow is definitely migratory. Arriving in our area in November, and typically staying until March, the tree sparrow moves south to avoid the harsher conditions of its Arctic breeding territory up in Canada. The winter range of the American tree sparrow stretches from Maine to North Carolina and westward to the eastern border of California.

For identification purposes, I focused on the heads of each species. The house sparrow has the added difficulty of sexual dimorphism (the sexes look different) so there is not just one plumage to look for. Adult males have a crown of solid gray that is bordered by black and chocolate-brown feathers that originate from the region of the eye and sweep back along the side of the head. Female house sparrows and young-of-the-year birds have an unremarkable brownish-gray cap with a beige “eye stripe” that originates at the eye and sweeps back along the side of the head.

In contrast, the American tree sparrow has a cinnamon-colored cap and a cinnamon-colored eye stripe. Between the cap and eye stripe there is a stripe of feathers that can best be described as light gray. Features of further distinction were covered in my columns from Nov. 19 and Nov. 26.

Today, I conclude my sparrow series with the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis). Another species of a migratory nature, the white-throated sparrow does not move as far north during the summer as the American tree sparrow does. White-throated sparrows prefer to breed in coniferous forests, which are far more abundant in northern New England and Canada. However, the same sorts of forests can be found at higher altitudes here in Massachusetts, and it is possible the small numbers of these birds might be found breeding in the higher areas of the hilltowns and the Berkshires.

However, the majority of the breeding range of the white-throated sparrow is found to the north of our latitude. From Massachusetts to Wisconsin, the breeding range stretches up into Canada in a great swath of the landscape that stretches in a northwesterly direction up to British Columbia and the Northwest Territories of Canada. In winter, the birds fan out across the eastern half of the United States in a giant triangular range that stretches from Maine to Arizona and all points east.

The white-throated sparrow is particularly easy to identify because it has black and white stripes that run from the nose to the nape of the neck. Curiously, there are two “races” of this species and the stripes on the head are the key to identification. One group has bright white stripes, while the other has stripes with a hint of beige. Regardless of lineage, all white-throated sparrows also feature a patch of bright yellow feathers between the nose and the eye. So, just in case the stripes on the head weren’t enough, these yellow feathers will seal the deal.

Now I know what some of you are thinking. What about song sparrows? How about Savannah sparrows or white-crowned sparrows? Well, it’s wintertime and it is extremely unlikely that any of these birds will be seen in our area at present. However, if you really want me to continue the story of sparrows, just let me know. Christmas is coming, and I am more than happy to entertain reader requests. Just put together a wish list and send it to me at speakingofnature@gmail.

In the meantime, keep your eyes and ears open for anything odd or interesting. I’d love to hear about it.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 21 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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