Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Sparrows Add To Backyard Feeder Enjoyment
December 06, 2014
By Steve Grinley

     Sparrows are an unappreciated family of the backyard bird feeders. This is mainly due to the reputation of house sparrows, or English sparrows as they are known. These aggressive birds are not members of our true American sparrow family. They are, in fact, weaver finches, imported to America years ago from Europe and Africa. These invasive terrors of bird feeders and bird houses give our American sparrows a bum rap.

     Our American sparrows can be bullies to one another on occasion, but nothing like the gregarious disruption caused by the imports. Our sparrows come to the feeders singly or, usually, in small flocks. Many of them feed contently on the ground under the feeders. Some will come up to feeders, especially platform-type feeders or a tray. 

     Those that know our native sparrows sometimes refer to them as” little brown jobs”, but if you look at them closely, most of them are remarkably different and beautiful. Some are very distinct and you wouldn’t think of them as sparrows. Many folks put out white prozo millet just to attract song, tree, white-throated, and white-crowned sparrows which often associate with the juncos, which are also a sparrow. Even the Eastern towhee, a warmer weather bird here, is a sparrow! All of these birds have distinctive markings to make them very recognizable. 

     One of my favorite is the fox sparrow. This large sparrow with bright rust and gray markings likes to scratch in the leaves, or under feeders, thrusting both feet forward and back and moving its whole body in the process. Fun to watch!

     Doug Chickering of Groveland recently shared his experience of seeing fox sparrows return to his backyard:

     “I awoke this morning just before sunrise and true to my routine I went out into the living room/dining area turned up the heat on the thermometer and looked out at the feeders in the yard. The gloom of pre dawn was beginning to brighten and I noticed some movement at the base of the close feeder pole. My first thought was Cardinal or perhaps Junco. They are usually the first to start feeding as well as the last to give it up in the evening. Even without binoculars though, I could see that it was a sparrow. 

     “I reached for the binoculars on the dining table and expected to bring them to bear on an early White-throated Sparrow. Instead I focused in on a working Fox Sparrow. Naturally I called out to Lois. We had been expecting a Fox Sparrow since the beginning of the month. I guess “expecting” isn’t quite accurate. We had been hoping for one and as the month slipped by our hopes sagged a little and we were preparing to be disappointed. It wasn’t going to be a huge disappointment for we had one at the feeder in March, but since 2011 we had been visited by at least one Fox Sparrow every November; starting early in the month and sometimes lasting to Thanksgiving.

     “Now there he was, scratching diligently at the thick layer of black oil sunflower seed shells that accumulated below the feeder. Sending a small shower of detritus with each powerful two legged scrape; and then pecking at what he found. We watched as the sun rose and illuminated the yard; and the large gorgeous Sparrow stayed scratching away, all through breakfast.

     “Watching this bird made me wonder. Is this the same Fox Sparrow that visited us this spring? Is it the same one that has visited the yard now for at least four consecutive years? I suppose if I had pictures of the visitors I could try to match field marks and maybe answer that question; but I don’t. Yet it does seem logical that it is the same bird. After all, what are the chances that the visitors have been a different Fox Sparrow each year? It’s not like the Junco’s that are everywhere, or even the White-throated Sparrows. It seems much more logical that this Fox Sparrow has liked what he found here and has imprinted our yard. In any case we have been blessed.

     “This afternoon; after doing our morning birding routine, we came home to lunch to find that instead of a Fox Sparrow at the feeder we had two Fox Sparrows. They were beautiful birds; with that deep brownish red, and slightly diffuse streaking at the sides and chest and a tasteful gray to contrast the dark red in the face. Such a treat. We have been doubly blessed. If they don’t return tomorrow this will be a fine moment; but we can hope for more. Who doesn’t love a Fox Sparrow?”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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