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In defense of the lowly sparrow

Reddish overall with a heavily streaked breast, Fox Sparrows are welcome spring arrivals. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Keith Corliss

The sparrows are back. All winter long members of the songbird family, Emberizidae, have been absent from our area, spending the cold non-breeding months farther to the south. Now with the lengthening of days, the 20-plus sparrow species that visit North Dakota at least some part of the year are arriving.

Say the word “sparrow” to the average person and an image of a little, non descript, brown bird that seems to take a particular liking to the parking lots of fast- food joints comes to mind. That’s unfortunate for two reasons.

First, the bird we are referring to is not a sparrow, at least not one of ours. Sure, it’s called house sparrow (Passer domesticus), but it’s an Old World finch completely unrelated to our native sparrows. Secondly, House Sparrows invite an unjustified negative impression of sparrows in general by living in close proximity to people, often in an annoying fashion.

Instead, the sparrows native to North America are an amazingly diverse group with a wide array of habitat requirements, song types and morphological variances. Ranging from the bold clown-like face of lark sparrow all the way to the dark subtle moods of the mousy Lincoln’s Sparrow, sparrows make up a large chunk of passerine avifauna in the North American summer landscape while presenting the occasional identification challenge to interested observers.

As of early this week, the list of arrivals so far in 2014 is quite impressive: fox sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, chipping sparrow, Lincoln’s sparrow, swamp sparrow, Savannah sparrow, Vesper sparrow, field sparrow, lark sparrow … and likely a few more by the time you are reading this.

Some species arrive en masse with impressive flocks covering the ground in favored locations. White-throated Sparrows, for instance, can be seen in the hundreds in our local parks feeding on open ground in mixed flocks with smaller numbers of other sparrows.

Others are far less numerous, less noticeable, much more discrete. Among this lot is one of my personal favorites, the Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca). Unlike flocking species that appear one morning (sparrows are night migrants) in the backyard as if someone had opened a floodgate, a Fox Sparrow will appear usually as an individual, maybe two.

On some mid-April morning there comes a moment every spring when one of three things happen indicating the arrival of Fox Sparrows. One is by ear; a new, rich, three-second song is suddenly emanating from somewhere in the yard, a song not heard since last April, being repeated loudly over and over for minutes at a time. Two, a “double-scratcher” is seen. Several sparrow species feed on the ground by jumping forward and quickly dragging both feet back in a sort of hopping-in-place technique. In early to mid-April, Fox Sparrow is the likely candidate for this practice.

Finally, there is usually a telltale flash of rusty red (in our eastern birds). Quite often fox sparrows are hunkered down in the heavy brush not wanting to be seen when a walk into the yard sends all the birds flying. A fox sparrow is so red it stands out like Lucille Ball, even in flight.

There are four main regional populations of this sparrow; all nest in remote areas across a wide swath from the Canadian Maritimes across the boreal forest to Alaska and down the spine of our western mountains. The only one we see here with any regularity is the eastern or “red” race. It’s also the one responsible for the bird’s common name, given its striking red fox-like coloration.

These are birds found rarely far from heavy thickets and dense cover. Fox sparrows will occasionally stray out into the open but don’t count on it. Instead, look deep into and under the low branches for this handsome bird.

It’s hard to mistake a fox sparrow with much else once seen and studied. It’s a very large robust sparrow with a red back. In front, the breast is perhaps the most heavily streaked of any songbird. I suppose Hermit Thrush or maybe song sparrow could be confused with fox sparrow, but not for long, it’s really quite striking, and a major reason I look forward to sparrow migration every spring.