Sparrows and their allies are passing through
Old Sam Peabody has been stopping by lately. I normally see him every year about this time, including autumn. He's a pleasant looking fellow with a fine disposition and the sweetest voice you've ever heard. Singing, you see, is his forte, and anyone hearing his medley won't likely forget it. Yes, Old Sam Peabody is another of my favorite birds: the white-throated sparrow.
White-throated sparrows belong to a large family, Emberizidae, also referred to as sparrows and their allies. Other emberizines include towhees, juncos, longspurs, and buntings, not to mention a host of sparrows such as chipping, song and savannah sparrows.
With 49 species and 17 genera in all, sparrows and their allies are among the most difficult birds to identify in the field. Identification is complicated by the similarities between species. That withstanding, even sparrows can be separated from one another by examining not only their similarities, but also their differences as well.
Unlike many sparrows, which have remarkably similar markings, the white-throated sparrow -- especially the male -- stands out amongst the sparrow clan. Breeding plumage of the male is unmistakable; no other sparrow has a white throat-patch as well defined (hence the name). Yellow lores, another diagnostic trait, adorn springtime breeding males.
The song of the white-throated sparrow is also distinctive. Because their song is often sung from obscure locations within low-lying thickets and not necessarily from conspicuous perches, many people don't seem to notice the bird itself. The clear, high whistle of the white-throated sparrow is often written as "Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody" or "Oh Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada."
The golden-crowned sparrow is a close relative of the white-throated sparrow. You probably won't see this bird in Minnesota, as its range is along the West Coast of North America to Alaska. I first encountered this fellow on a wilderness fishing trip to Alaska several years ago.
I initially only heard the bird, and I remember thinking I was listening to the white-throated sparrow. But something was different. The song, though similar, was markedly shorter in duration. This bird's song, a clear whistle of three to five notes, descends in scale and is written as, "Oh Dear Me." It is also the only sparrow with a gold-colored crown.
To better identify sparrows in the field, it helps to first learn similarities, and then work on identifying the differences between traits that unite. In other words, ask yourself questions like, "Does the sparrow have a streaked or un-streaked breast?" or "Is the sparrow large or small?" or "Does it have a rusty cap?" Other traits that tend to clump sparrows together into the same genera are tail-length and shape, crown plumage and body size, but not always.
All sparrows are generally brownish birds and not particularly colorful. Most have streaked plumage, and all have short, conical-shaped bills. Some sparrows sing beautiful songs, while others produce buzzing, insect-like songs and calls.
Sparrows and their allies are primarily ground-dwelling birds that nest on the ground. Many of them have the endearing habit of scratching the ground with both feet simultaneously in a "hop-scratch" manner. For such small birds it's surprising how powerful these scratches can be. I've watched many a sparrow completely remove layers of large leaves to get to mineral soil with just a few quick scratches. Towhees are prime examples of this interesting behavior.
Sparrows, somewhat secretive in habit and difficult to see because of their diminutive size, produce very distinctive songs and calls from one species to the next. And in some cases, the mere habitat these birds occupy helps to differentiate species of sparrows either heard or seen.
To the untrained human ear, the sweet songs of male song sparrows and tree sparrows can be confused with one another. However, body size and plumage differences will help birders tell the two apart. And though both species have rusty colored crowns (caps), song sparrows have streaked breasts while tree sparrows have un-streaked breasts. Additionally, tree sparrows possess a distinct dark spot located at mid-breast that is diagnostic to the species.
Like white-throated sparrows, some of the other species of sparrows arrive for only brief visits every year as they pass through during migration. Two such species include the Harris' sparrow and the fox sparrow. The Harris' sparrow is the largest sparrow and the only one with a totally black crown and "bib." The fox sparrow is another large sparrow. With its heavily streaked underparts and orange-brown rump and tail, the bird looks more like a thrush than the sparrow it really is.
As well, throughout the month of April another sparrow ally, the dark-eyed junco, has been showing up regularly at my feeders. Juncos are ground-feeding, gregarious birds that frequently occur in mixed flocks with other sparrows such as white-throats, and even finches like common redpolls. But, they, too, will soon be departing.
Indeed, Old Sam Peabody and some of his migrant compatriots aren't going to be around our feeders much longer. But I, for one, look forward each spring and fall when these delightful birds show up. Even so, many of their relatives are here for the summer and will be singing and nesting nearby. In the meantime, it's time to get out your field guide and study up as you get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org