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Feathered Friends – Don’t overlook winter’s little brown birds

The yellow lores on the white-throated sparrow makes this species easy to pick out from a flock of related “little brown birds.” (Photo by Kaz/Pixabay.com)

By Bryan Stevens

Amy McGill, a reader from Ohio, sent me an email following my anniversary column about dark-eyed juncos. Amy, as it turns out, is a fellow junco lover.

At the time of her email in late October, she was still waiting to see my favorite of all birds make their appearance at her home. She noted that juncos usually return to her home about a week before the end of October, so they are slightly late this year. Consequently, Amy’s “little timely visitors” are making her wonder what has delayed them.

At my own home in northeast Tennessee, the dark-eyed juncos appear to vie with white-throated sparrows for abundance each year. Last winter, the sparrows were far less conspicuous than the juncos. Although we’re only a week into November, both the dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows have absented themselves from my feeders.

With temperatures dipping lower after a particularly hot, dry autumn, some cold-season arrivals have made themselves at home. Some of the early birds included a common raven that flew over my house. Perhaps to make certain I didn’t neglect to take note, the raven produced its trademark croaking call the entire time the large, dark bird soared overhead.

A Northern mockingbird visited the feeders for a couple of days to see what was the commotion from the other birds. After one quick peek, the mocker paid no attention to the available offering of sunflower seeds. At my home, mockingbirds are strictly fall/winter birds and are fairly uncommon.

Ravens and mockingbirds are easier to recognize and identify than sparrows, which are also referred to by birders with some frustration as “little brown birds.” Lumping the sparrows together as a family of similar-looking species does a disservice to them, however.

While most are definitely “little brown birds,” the sparrows offer quite a range of subtle differences in plumage as well as song, making it possible — if at times challenging — to identify them. Some of the winter sparrows in the region include fox sparrow, swamp sparrow, song sparrow, chipping sparrow, white-crowned sparrow and the aforementioned white-throated sparrow.

In similarly distinctive fashion, the white-throated sparrow — especially as spring gets nearer — also acquires a plumage that makes it stand out from the flock. These sparrows have a plumper shape than some of their kin. They have a black-and-white pattern to their head, and a neat “bib” of white feathers covers the throat.

The standout feature to this bird’s appearance is the bright yellow spot located between each eye and the bird’s bill. In winter, some white-throated sparrows may lack this spot of yellow or show a less dramatic version, but the approach of spring usually puts these birds back into fine form.

Many sparrows, including the white-throated sparrow, prefer to forage for food on the ground. It’s often helpful to purchase a supply of millet seed. When filling your feeders with sunflower seeds, scatter a couple of handfuls of millet seed on the ground beneath the feeders or at the edge of a brushy area. Sparrows like to have quick access to dense cover, so they will feed more securely if the scattered seeds are within quick reach of shelter.

If your yard is devoid of brushy retreats, you can make your own brush pile, perhaps with trimmings from routine autumn landscape maintenance. A brush pile makes a popular gathering place for not only sparrows but also wrens, kinglets and other small songbirds. In addition to security, the brush pile lessens the impact of cold winter winds.

Sparrows don’t always co-exist peaceably. According to the website allaboutbirds.com, many of the larger sparrow species are quite aggressive with their kin. This aggression usually demonstrates itself in a tendency to chase other birds. Apparently, white-crowned sparrows will share their territories with fox sparrows — which are larger birds — but they will give chase to chipping sparrows and dark-eyed juncos in an attempt to drive them from the territory.

Most songbirds live a precarious life that can be measured in only a few years. However, an occasional individual defies the odds. According to the website allaboutbirds.com, the oldest recorded white-throated sparrow was at least 14 years, 11 months old, when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Alberta, Canada.

So, while it’s easy to overlook the sparrows, I’d recommend giving them a second glance. Here are a few relatives of the white-throated sparrow with common names that suggest the identifying feature that helps them stand out from the flock: golden-crowned sparrow, rufous-collared sparrow, cinnamon-tailed sparrow, black-chinned sparrow and black-throated sparrow.