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Friday, November 29, 2013

The Simple Beauty of Sparrows

White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys

Coming from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘spearwa’ and literally meaning ‘flutterer’, sparrows often conjure up images of the ubiquitous and non-native House sparrow and the House finch, which isn’t a sparrow at all.  While most sparrows are generally small to medium brown birds with streaks, the differences between sparrows can best be determined by their relative size, head markings, and habitat.

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

All sparrows have conical bills that they use to shell seeds, a primary component of their diet year-round, but especially so in the winter months.  There is little difference between the males and the females in terms of appearance, but males are on average larger than females.  As a group, most sparrows are birds of grasslands, prairies, and marshes, and seem to prefer weedy fields and woodland edges in the winter.  Of the sparrow species that migrate, none travel further than the southern United States or northern Mexico.

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

One of our most common winter sparrows is the Chipping sparrow.  Small and slim, with a long notched tail, rusty cap, white stripe over the eye and a black line through the eye, this sparrow moves in loose flocks and frequently feeds in short grass and open woods.  While still fairly abundant, this sparrow is declining in numbers, mainly due to habitat destruction, and winters in the southern part of the United States.  When first identified in 1810 by an American ornithologist, it was nicknamed ‘the social sparrow’ for it was easily approached and associated with human habitation.

White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys 

A fairly large sparrow, the White-crowned sparrow is distinguished by its black and white striped head, unmarked gray breast, and dark pink bill.  It is found in large groups in thickets and weedy areas, foraging on the ground.  Discovered in 1772 by a German naturalist, this sparrow was originally named the ‘white-eyebrowed bunting’, for in the Old World, sparrows were usually called buntings. 

Found in a variety of grassy habitats, and often in small flocks, is the Savannah sparrow. Streaked on both their back and their breast, Savannah’s have pink legs, yellow above the eye, a thin white median crown stripe, and a short notched tail.  First described by a British ornithologist in 1790, it was called a ‘sandwich bunting’ due to the first specimens being collected from Sandwich Bay in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.   

Lincoln's Sparrow, Melospiza lincolnii

Lincoln’s sparrow is a medium-sized bird with a rather short tail, broad gray stripe above the eye, buffy moustache stripe, and a buffy upper breast with crisp, blackish streaks.  Found in winter in brushy edges of ponds and other moist areas, this sparrow was named by John James Audubon in 1833 after his research companion, Thomas Lincoln, shot the first specimen in Labrador.       

Sparrows are gregarious and are often our most hardy winter visitors.  Adorned in various shades of brown, gray, black, and white, they reflect the subdued hues of a winter landscape.  Often dismissed as ‘little brown birds’ when seen with the naked eye, these birds invite closer inspection and are nature’s way of reminding us that subtle colors and patterns can be beautiful, too!