Now is the perfect time to get out and search for Sparrows. Several species breed to our north but spend winter months across our region, making fall and winter the only times to see these birds in our area. Among these are the American Tree Sparrow, White-Crowned Sparrow and White-Throated Sparrow. Good numbers of these Sparrows can now be observed across the region.
Sparrows are an easy bird to find. They prefer a habitat that consists of open areas, thickets, and undergrowth, making forest edges an excellent place to locate them. As with most birds, their diet varies depending on season and is comprised of insects, seeds, and berries. This time of year I prefer to search Goldenrod fields on the edge of a forest for Sparrows, as they can be found feeding heavily on the seeds from this common wild flower.
Sparrows forage on, or close to the ground so looking low will yield the best results. These birds, especially the ones that have recently migrated from the north can be extremely skittish, so walk slowly and quietly while searching for them. Sparrows can also be located by listening for their songs and calls which consist of various chirps, tweets and whistles. The songs of these birds are quite beautiful, making listening to them as rewarding as observing them.
Identifying Sparrows can be far more difficult than locating them. At a quick glance, Sparrows appear as a brown flash, but subtle differences are key to proper identification. In particular, pay attention to crown colour, beak colour, throat and chest colour, wing bars and breast markings. Many Sparrows at this time of year are still displaying juvenile plumage making identification even more confusing. For more advanced birders, Sparrows can also be identified by their song.
Resident Sparrows are also found throughout our area. These species include: House Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Field Sparrows, and Swamp Sparrows. These birds can be found in the same habitat as overwintering Sparrows, with the exception of Swamp Sparrows which prefer areas consisting of marshes, ponds and wet areas.
Many Sparrows, including the winter species often visit backyards and can be observed around feeders. Most species prefer to feed on the ground consuming seed that other birds have scattered, but some will land directly on a feeder, especially platform feeders. A quality mixed feed consisting of sunflower seed, cut corn, white millet, and peanuts will attract Sparrows. Having cover around your yard will make it more attractive to Sparrows. Hedges, small shrubs and dense gardens are much more appealing to them than an open yard. If your yard lacks cover, but you wish to attract more Sparrows consider adding a brush pile. Instead of bundling sticks from around your yard and placing them to the curb for collection, create a pile of them in one area of your yard. Not only will Sparrows be attracted to a brush pile, other birds including Juncos, Wrens and Cardinals will too. Brush piles provide shelter from the elements and predators and are a great addition to any bird lovers yard.
If you are like me and keep a life list of birds, then watching for Sparrows and properly identifying them is a great way to add several species to your list. Sparrows are much more colourful than many may realize. Feather colours consist of white, yellow, tan, and rust; in addition their various streaked and striped markings make them a beautiful bird. Next time you are out, pay attention to Sparrows and see how many different species you can identify and add to your own list.