The diversity of backyard birds fuels their appeal. Cardinals and blue jays are spectacularly beautiful. Chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches sparkle with personality. Woodpeckers entertain. But some, the nondescript native sparrows we call "LBBs" (little brown birds), avoid the spotlight by simply feeding on the ground. Ground feeders are nice to have around because they help clean up the seeds other birds kick to the ground.
Because native sparrows lack stunning colors and irresistible personalities, they can be a challenge to identify. Here's a guide to some common ground-feeding sparrows that may visit your backyard feeders.
Song sparrows exemplify the classic LBB. Careful study, however, reveals several distinctive markings. For example, their legs and feet are pink. They have a long, rounded tail, which they pump up and down when they fly. Their white throat is bordered by long dark stripes that suggest a mustache. And the white belly and chest are marked by heavy brown streaks that often converge into a central breast spot. They're not so nondescript, after all.
Dark-eyed juncos are often called "snowbirds" because they are so often seen in winter. They usually arrive here in mid-October.
Juncos are easy to recognize. The charcoal gray body contrasts with the white belly, white outer tail feathers that flash in flight and the bright pink bill. The body of female juncos is a duller brownish-gray.
White-throated and white-crowned Sparrows can be identified by distinctive facial patterns. White-throats sport a prominent white throat, black and white crown stripes, and broad eyebrow stripes, which are yellow in front of the eye and white or tan behind it. White-crowns lack the bright white throat, and the head pattern consists of zebralike bold black and white stripes.
Tree sparrows usually arrive shortly before Christmas from their breeding range in northern Canada and Alaska and are easy to identify. Look for a rusty crown, a fine rusty stripe behind the eye, two white wing bars, and, most important, a dark spot in the middle of an otherwise plain breast.
Despite their name, tree sparrows are not forest birds. They nest in northern Canada and Alaska among the stunted trees and shrubs that characterize the tundra. Visits by tree sparrows are particularly gratifying because they travel so far to reach my backyard. Here, tree sparrows inhabit old fields, forest edges and marshes where they roam in flocks of 30 to 40 individuals. Within these flocks, sub-groups of four to eight birds travel and feed together.
Another winter visitor from the north whose arrival often coincides with the holiday season is the fox sparrow. Among the largest sparrows, foxies measure about 7 inches long and sport a bright rusty plumage. Heavy streaking across their chest converges to form a distinct central spot. When feeding, they make a lot of noise by kicking back the leaf litter with both feet like a towhee. Fox sparrows are unmistakable. When I see a fox sparrow, I'm reminded of a big rusty song sparrow.
A few years ago I devised a simple multi-level platform feeder to attract a greater variety of native sparrows. Place a 3-by-5-foot piece of exterior plywood on top of two sawhorses. Then put two concrete blocks on top of the plywood and cover them with a smaller piece of plywood. Anchor the whole arrangement with another concrete block. This setup creates a large, three-tiered platform feeder for native sparrows.
The ground is reasonably protected by the first tabletop, and initially birds congregate there. But the middle level is protected by a roof that is only as high as the concrete blocks; expect birds to gather here when it snows.
Another simple way to enhance a backyard feeding station is to place used Christmas trees near feeders. After the big day, gather a few discarded Christmas trees from the neighborhood and tie them together to provide ground feeding birds with protective cover from snow and wind and safe haven from hungry hawks and cats. Just toss a handful of seed into the bundle, and ground feeders will find it in no time.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.