Window on Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Hard as it may be to believe, there are more than 30 species of sparrows listed in our favorite North American field guide. That number may grow, as it’s been rumored that several of them are about to be split into separate species. That’s bad news for us, since we haven’t even seen all of the current species. But it isn’t for a lack of trying.
World travelers among us can set their sights higher and nail down nearly 300 sparrow species found around the globe, if they like, but this would require the person to become a full-time birder “” and live a very long life.
You probably have heard people grumble about pesky house sparrows. Amazingly, these birds aren’t native to this continent. Nearly the entire house sparrow population in North America is descended from 100 birds that were released in Brooklyn, New York, during the fall of 1851 and the spring of 1852. Ornithologists say that the birds found an unoccupied niche and, as their numbers increased, the latecomers had to spread out. But we’ve read that subsequent introductions of house sparrows in San Francisco, California, and Salt Lake City, Utah, were important to the spread of the species, too. There must have been plenty of unoccupied niches; now house sparrows can be found throughout the United States and Canada. But, really, we shouldn’t complain about the house sparrow, for most of our ancestors also emigrated across the Atlantic Ocean, and we, too, have spread throughout North America.
Actually, the house sparrow isn’t considered by ornithologists to be a sparrow at all. It’s a member of the weaver finch family. So, in a bird identification book, the house sparrow is found in the weaver category, right along with another small introduced weaver bird, the Eurasian tree sparrow. Did we ever mention that bird names can be confusing?
So what makes a sparrow a sparrow? One consistent and obvious marker is that all sparrows have cone-shaped bills. They’re fairly small birds, measuring between 5 and 7 inches from bill to tail. Beyond that, identification becomes more difficult. There are white-throated sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, golden-crowned sparrows, and black-chinned and black-throated sparrows. You get the idea. Don’t take the names literally, though. We’ve seen many swamp sparrows, but never in a swamp. Nor do field sparrows spend a lot of time in fields.
Song sparrows, however, do live up to their name. A curious grad student taped numerous songs sung by this species. He was amazed to find that, at least during breeding season, a male song sparrow may sing as many as two dozen different tunes, repeating each song several times before moving on to the next one.
By and large, sparrows spend a huge portion of their time on the ground, scratching through the soil to find the seeds that make up the bulk of their diet. Then they put those cone-shaped bills to work crushing the seed pods, shells, and coverings to obtain the tasty meal inside.
This year we had a heavy snow in mid-March. Winter arrived late in central California, but made up for it by snowing in places where even long-time residents couldn’t remember seeing it. Meanwhile, the number of birds looking for food was greater than we can remember. Many of them must have flown down the mountain to flee even colder weather. The hungry little creatures kept us busy filling the birdfeeder and scattering enough seed across the ground so they could get enough before the equally hungry quail ate it all.
Sparrows have a variety of strategies for finding seeds. In the case of our visitors, when they couldn’t spot seeds on the surface, they began scratching away the ground litter, jumping backward with both feet while dragging their claws in the leaves or soil. It worked. Of course, we were kept busy tossing out more seed. It was common to have a couple dozen sparrows scavenging at one time, mainly white crowns and juncos. Did we enjoy providing the service? You bet.
Once the snow melted and spring arrived, singing season began. Whether they were resident or migrating, the sparrows that showed up in our yard appeared to be in harmony. After finding a location where the females could both see and hear them, the males began the mating serenade appropriate to their species.
The harmony was shattered when male sparrows began establishing and defending nesting territories. Then they alternated singing with snappy chases to make it clear to rivals that this turf was taken.
We particularly enjoy watching song sparrows during breeding season. The males put on quite a show to draw the interest of the females. During courtship, males fly back and forth, shrub to shrub, with their wings aflutter and their necks outstretched, heads and tails held high. Each time they land, the males burst into song.
Once mating takes place it’s the sole province of madam song sparrow to build the nest and incubate the eggs. But when those eggs hatch, both parents feed the young.
But that’s not the end of their breeding season. Song sparrow couples often produce three broods in a single season. Once the chicks of the first brood are ready to fly, the male takes over their care. He feeds and educates them, freeing the female to lay another batch of eggs.
With so many species of sparrows, many of which look and act much alike, beginning birders tend to search for easier additions to their life lists. But learning something about sparrows has real advantages. For one thing, you can find sparrows just about anywhere at nearly any time of year. The problem is getting the birds to remain still long enough to identify them. And that’s one reason we put out birdseed.
Consider this: American tree sparrows have a large neck pouch (crop) that can hold up to 1,000 seeds. In Arizona a winter study found that a chipping sparrow consumed 160 times its body weight in seeds during the season “” more than two pounds. And our favorite singers of the group, the song sparrows, will eat as many as 4,000 seeds an hour during freezing weather to maintain their energy levels.
And while they are eating, they stay still long enough to let you focus your binoculars and get a really good look. Do this, then consult a bird book. And look again. As you learn the behavior patterns of the various sparrows, you’ll be able to identify many with a quick glance. And that gives you a comparison to use when you run across one of those flitting sparrows that would rather hide in a bush than let you watch.
Sparrows have personality “” they are often easy to watch, and, eventually, not that hard to identify. Put out some seed and get to know these neighbors as you travel. Then you, too, will smile when you hear someone say, “It’s only a sparrow.”