Blane Klemek: Sparrows — a diverse, glorious group of birds
One of my favorite groups of birds belongs to the large avian family, Emberizidae, otherwise known as sparrows and their allies. Towhees, juncos, longspurs, and buntings also belong to the family. Some people like referring to sparrows as “Just another little brown job.”
With 49 species and 17 genera in all, sparrows are among the most difficult birds to identify in the field. Identification is complicated by the similarities between species. That withstanding, to the astute birder, even sparrows can be separated from one another by examining not only the similarities, but their differences as well.
To better identify sparrows in the field, it helps to first learn similarities, and then work on identifying the differences between traits that unite. In other words, ask yourself questions like, “Does the sparrow have a streaked or unstreaked breast?” or “Is the sparrow large or small?” Other traits that tend to clump sparrows together into the same genera are tail length and shape, crown plumage, and body size, but not always. It should also be noted that the non-native house sparrow is not a sparrow at all. Rather, it is a finch.
All sparrows are generally brownish birds and not particularly colorful. Most have streaked plumage, and all have short, conical-shaped bills. Some sparrows sing beautiful songs, while others produce buzzing, insect-like songs and calls.
Sparrows and their allies are primarily ground-dwelling birds that nest on the ground. Many of them have the endearing habit of scratching the ground with both feet simultaneously in a “hop-scratch” manner. For such small birds it’s surprising how powerful these scratches can be. I’ve watched many a sparrow completely remove layers of large leaves to get to mineral soil with just a few quick scratches.
When I conducted field research on restored wetlands of the prairie pothole region of North Dakota, one of my tasks was to assess bird diversity. Often as the case was, the birds I recorded as seen were not seen at all. The songs and calls of birds were all I needed to determine species’ presence and absence.
I learned, for example, how to identify two different species of common sparrows — the clay-colored and chipping — by both their calls and songs and appearances. The former species’ “zheee zheee zheee” song and the latter sparrows’ sharp “chips” easily differentiated the two by their distinctive vocalizations, yet their physical features posed more challenging.
Sparrows, somewhat secretive in habit and difficult to see because of their diminutive size, produce very distinctive songs and calls from one species to the next. And in some cases, the mere habitat these birds occupy helps to differentiate species of sparrows either heard or seen.
To the untrained human ear, the sweet songs of male song sparrows and American tree sparrows can be confused with one another. However, body plumage differences will help birders tell the two apart. And though both species have somewhat rusty colored crowns, especially the tree sparrow, song sparrows have streaked breasts and crowns while tree sparrows have unstreaked breasts and crowns. Additionally, tree sparrows possess a very visible and distinct, isolated dark spot located at mid-breast that is diagnostic to the species.
One of my favorite sparrows is the white-throated sparrow. Breeding plumage of the male is unmistakable. No other sparrow has a white throat patch as well defined, and hence the name. Yellow lores, most especially adorning springtime males, are also diagnostic.
The song of the white-throated sparrow is also distinctive. The clear, high whistle, oft written as “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody,” is usually heard in dense thickets, rarely far from the ground. Meanwhile, the golden-crowned sparrow, which is related to the white-throated sparrow, is another favorite of mine. You probably won’t see this bird in Minnesota, as its range is along the West Coast of North America to Alaska, but I was privileged to observe this delightful species of sparrow on a wilderness fishing trip to Alaska many years ago.
I initially only heard the bird while thinking that it sounded similar to the white-throated sparrow back home, yet I knew something was different — the song was markedly shorter in duration. Its song, a clear whistle of three to five notes, descends in scale and is written as, “Oh-Dear-Me.” And once I observed the bird, I knew for sure; it is also the only sparrow with a gold-colored crown.
Some sparrows show up for only a brief visit every year as they pass through during migration, such as dark-eyed juncos. Others include the Harris’ sparrow and the fox sparrow. The Harris’ sparrow is the largest sparrow and the only one with a totally black crown and “bib.” The fox sparrow is another large sparrow. With its heavily streaked underparts and orange-brown rump and tail, the bird looks more like a thrush than the sparrow it really is.
Most native sparrows during this time of year are busy nesting and caring for young that have already hatched. Some, like the song sparrow and the many grassland dependent species of sparrows such as savannah sparrows, are still singing their lovely songs.
Indeed, given that most species of sparrows will allow fairly close observation and hours of birding bliss, searching for and listening to the many individual members of this diverse and glorious group of birds makes for pleasurable times afield as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)