Fall season brings little brown birds

8:59 am | October 22, 2012

On the Saturday bird walk at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park Oct. 13, I saw my first White-Throated Sparrow of the season. As this sparrow and relatives begin to arrive at backyard feeders, I thought it would be a good time to explore this family of little brown birds.

Photo by Ken Thomas
The Song Sparrow, a fairly common bird of backyards in the region, is a fairly typical “little brown bird.”

The composition of the birds in the fields and woodlands around my home is changing as autumn advances. The colorful neotropical migrants — the warblers, the tanagers, the hummingbirds, the orioles — are on their way south, gone until next spring.

There are still colorful birds to enjoy — male Northern Cardinals look even more stunning against the bleak backdrop of winter terrain.

But, for the most part, many of the winter birds, especially those making regular visits to my feeders, wear drab winter plumage. The American Goldfinches, for instance, bear not even a faint resemblance to their bold gold and black summer appearance.

And then there are the “little brown birds,” otherwise known as sparrows. In the past several weeks, I have seen several species of sparrows, including Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Eastern Towhee and Dark-eyed Junco.

The Dark-eyed Junco is a member of the sparrow family. In North America, the sparrows are classified in the Emberizidae family, which also includes the buntings, cardinals, grosbeaks and tanagers. Birds such as the Dark-eyed Junco and the Eastern Towhee, however, aren’t what most people think of as “sparrows.”

The American sparrows are, quite accurately, described as “little brown birds” of somewhat subdued plumage. However, as you begin to study our native sparrows, you can learn to distinguish most of the more common sparrows.

Worldwide, there are many superstitions connected with birds commonly known as “sparrows.”

In the book “The Folklore of Birds,” author Laura C. Martin notes that in China the sparrow is a foreteller of good luck. She also points out that in Japan the sparrow is a symbol for gentleness, gratitude and joy.

Keep in mind, however, that sparrows in Japan and China are not the same birds found in the United States. In fact, with a few exceptions, our native sparrows are unique to North America.

A listing of sparrows native to the United States would include species such as Clay-colored Sparrow, Black-chinned Sparrow, Sage Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Other sparrows native to the New World but outside of the United States would include Cinnamon-tailed Sparrow, Striped Sparrow, Zapata Sparrow, Orange-billed Sparrow and Half-collared Sparrow.

In Northeast Tennessee, most people can expect to encounter only a handful of different species of sparrows.

The Song Sparrow is widespread in North America, but it also has many different geographic races, ranging from a jumbo-sized bird in the Aleutian Islands off the Alaskan coast to pale birds of desert regions to the typical Song Sparrow found in many backyards across the nation. The Song Sparrow can be found at any time of the year in East Tennessee, most often in backyards that offer some dense cover and perhaps a feeder stocked with seeds.

Other sparrows will often spend the winter months making a living supplemented by fare offered at backyard feeders. Some of the more common winter sparrows include White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco and White-crowned Sparrow. Other sparrows, including Field Sparrow, Fox Sparrow and Chipping Sparrow, will also visit feeders.

Other sparrows are less frequent visitors to yards, and can most often be found during the migration season. Such sparrows include Savannah Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow and Swamp Sparrow.

One of the most easily recognized sparrows is the White-crowned Sparrow. The White-crowned Sparrow is quite vividly marked for a sparrow, and there’s little chance of confusing this large sparrow with any of its more dull-plumaged kin.

An adult White-crowned Sparrow has a bold white and black crown pattern. Its upperparts are brown with a grayish-white breast and two white wing bars. At seven inches in length, this is one of our larger sparrows. The White-crowned Sparrow also possesses a pinkish bill. All these traits help this sparrow stand out from the crowd.

Immature White-crowned Sparrows are similar to adults in every respect except their crown pattern consists of brown and beige stripes instead of black and white.

On the other hand, the Chipping Sparrow, which wears a distinctive plumage in the breeding season, can be difficult to identify in the fall as these sparrows molt into their more subdued winter plumage. With many birds sporting only a partial transition into winter attire, individual Chipping Sparrows can show a great deal of variation during the fall. Chipping Sparrows, or chippies, tend to travel in large flocks more so than some other common sparrows.

The House Sparrow, that little brown bird that frequents parking lots in the city as well as cattle lots in the country, is not a native bird. Technically, the House Sparrow is not even a sparrow — it’s a weaver finch. Like the European Starling, the House Sparrow was introduced to North America and quickly adapted, sometimes to the disadvantage of some of our native birds.

So, when the winter season brings some of these “little brown birds” to your feeders, grab a birding field guide and take time to study the subtle details. With the birds at close range at your feeders, it will be much easier to detect some of the distinctive field marks that assist birders in distinguishing the sparrows.

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If you have a comment or question, give me a call at 542-4151 or send an email to bstevens@starhq.com or ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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