If you think sparrows = boring, you’re not looking close enough.  Of course most people are only familiar with House sparrows, which exist on almost every continent, but were introduced from Europe. They are an Old World weaver finch that is called a “sparrow”.

All sparrows are officially finches, but there is a separate Family called the Emberizidae that incorporates the birds I’m talking about today.  This family includes some Buntings, Juncos, Towhees and one Seedeater, as well as 33 sparrows that are found in North America.  Many are transients; here for a brief time as they migrate through on their way to breeding grounds further north, or in the fall as they head south once again; so now is the time to be watching for some of these special little brown birds.  And yes, they are mostly brown in color, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful.  By looking closer you will discover they can range from a deep umber to soft beige and every shade in between, as well as having patches of white or bright yellow on certain parts of their body.

The reason I’m focusing on sparrows today is because we had two of the species arrive in our yard this week.  One was the Chipping Sparrow and the other the Fox Sparrow.  The former was all by itself, while the latter had two of the birds hopping around under one of our  bird feeders.  According to our records the Chipping sparrows have arrived about a week earlier in the past four years than they did in the previous 20.  The fox sparrows have remained somewhat steadier in their arrival times.

Members of Emberizidae have conical bills (good for cracking and eating sunflower bird seeds) and build cup like nests in shrubs and trees and sometimes on the ground.  The males and females look alike.

Chipping sparrow

A Chipping Sparrow – side view

chipping sparrow 2

In this view you can see the streakless grey chest – one key to identifying the Chipping Sparrow, as well as that rusty cap and black eye stripe.

The Chipping Sparrow is easy to pick out because it has a jaunty chestnut colored cap, with a white stripe beneath it just above each black eye line.  Their breast is a clear solid pale grey.  These birds are often found in fields or yards near conifer forests and their trilling song will be heard throughout the spring and summer nesting season.  In the wild they eat many types of grass seeds, as well as the seeds of clover, ragweed and dandelion.  Some insects make up a portion of their diet too. These are probably most critical during the time when they are feeding their young.

The Fox Sparrow is not going to stick around and so we always watch anxiously to catch them as they move through, because they are stunning little birds and entertaining to boot.  One of their more endearing qualities is the little hopping ‘dance’ they do on top of the leaf matter, in their efforts to uncover food.  They hop forward and then push backwards with their feet, sometimes scraping a small hole in the damp soil.  They are larger than the Chipping Sparrow by a couple inches, with heavier looking bodies.

fox sparrow

A beautiful Fox Sparrow – notice all the streaks and splotches on its breast.

Audubon painting of fox sparrow

John James Audubon’s painting of Fox Sparrows.

One of them flew up to a branch of the maple right next to our deck and with binoculars I was able to really appreciate the gorgeous, rich russet colors on its tail, wings and cheek.  This same color continues in streaks of triangular ‘spots’ on the under parts and meet at a central dot on its chest.  Field guides describe this as a red or ‘foxy’ color, but I would disagree, since it was really more in the range of brown. Set against the grey feathers it is worthy of second or third look. To my husband, the grey is closer to a violet color.

I would classify Fox Sparrows as the prettiest of the sparrows and apparently they also have an equally beautiful song, which I have never heard, and may never hear, since their breeding territories are in the far northern reaches of Canada. While they are visiting, I will encourage them to stay a bit longer by providing a variety of wild bird seed.

By Kate Crowley