Now that spring has officially arrived, I am certain many of you have feeders stocked and are enjoying the numerous birds flocking to them. Among those feeder species are, of course, sparrows. As sparrows, aka LBJ’s or little brown jobbies, can be confusing, perhaps this handy comparison of four of our most common sparrows, all members of the family Emberizidae, will prove useful.
Song Sparrow: One of the most highly variable sparrows in the east, the Song Sparrow is often a wide-spread Cape Breton winter resident. One of our must abundant sparrows, it ranges in length from a mere 5″ to 6½”. Adult birds of the species are quite dark in appearance and quite robust; first year birds tend to be slimmer and buffier overall. All song sparrow show a heavily streaked breast highlighted by an almost black central breast spot on a pale ground. Its crown is brown; its face is much greyer, the grey showing as large face patches. The dark grey eye streak is diagnostic, as is its whitish throat bordered with very dark stripes. Its back is mottled, again, a mixture of brown and grey. Its feet and legs are pinkish, the upper bill, grey. The song sparrow sports a long and rounded tail and in, flight, look for the characteristic pumping motion. Song sparrow is one of spring’s earliest returnees and its song, sung throughout most of the day at this time of year, is a delight to hear. Listen for three or four quick, clear, sweet, whistled notes followed by an ascending, somewhat nasal, buzzy trill. If undisturbed, the song sparrow will continue to sing for very long periods of time.
Savannah sparrow: Quite similar in appearance to the song sparrow, the Savannah is paler overall and shows yellow eyebrows, sometimes pale buffy, as well as a pale median crown stripe. Its breast striping is not as intense as the song sparrow’s and although some birds do show a central breast spot, it is not nearly so dark or dramatic as that sported by the song sparrow. Its song, too, is similar to the song sparrow’s, shorter, more abrupt but with the same liquid quality. Savannah sparrow tend to move off to their coastal nesting grounds after only a few days at feeders.
White-throated Sparrow: The white-throated sparrow is, perhaps, one our loveliest songbirds and one of the larger sparrows, measuring between 6″ and 7″ in length. Its bright, white throat patch gives it its name, this diagnostic feature displayed by both male and female birds. Other shared identification marks include yellow lores – a small patch of yellow feathering above the bill and between the eyes – and heavily scaled backs. Adult birds are of two colour morphs and are distinguished by head pattern. The darker form has three pure white stripes separated and bordered by black; the lighter form possesses tan stripes, same pattern, also separated and bordered by black. The obvious eye stripe is lighter or darker, depending on the adult’s colour variation. It takes one of each colour morph to make a breeding pair. The white-throated sparrow is easily coaxed to feeders and is sometimes seen during mild winters such as the one just experienced. Its usual habitat is the mixed forests common to our part of Cape Breton where it nests in thick undergrowth. Its haunting, two-note call (one long note followed by three shorter notes, the last three sometimes higher, sometimes lower than the first, long note) is heard both morning and evening and often, during breeding season, many males will sing over a relatively small territory.
Fox Sparrow: One of our largest Emberizids (to 7¼” in length), the fox sparrow is a highly visible spring migrant due to its rich chestnut colouring generously sprinkled with grey. Its rump and tail are reddish and there is a considerable amount of red in its wings also. Grey patches on wings, head, face and cascading down the back make it a standout among other ground feeders. A heavily marked breast (triangular reddish spots that merge with a large, central breast spot) complete the picture of this lively seed and insect eater. Fox sparrow scratch at the ground and among leaf litter to free up imbedded seed and small insects. Its song is a lively and sweet variation of the song sparrow’s with an introductory note that gives way to a haunting, ascending trill. Fox sparrow begin showing up at local feeders usually by late March; this year was no exception, the first noted March 25th. Like all sparrows, fox sparrow are ground nesters and prefer thickets and lush undergrowth that provides them ample cover from predators.
Good birding One and All!