Meet Your Overlooked Neighbors: The Under-appreciated Sparrows

A Field Sparrow out in the open to distract me from its nearby nest

For years, I watched little brown birds fuss around our bird feeders and thought “sparrows.” And that was that. It hadn’t occurred to me that those little brown bodies deserved more attention; I thought I’d identified them.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

But eventually, with the help of a good set of binoculars and the birding walks led by our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, I realized I was surrounded by many different little sparrows, each with its own distinctive body style, spring song and feather pattern. So these days, I delight in their differences! Please come meet these little brown characters you may have missed. Perhaps you’ll enjoy knowing them as much as I do.

[Note: I will generally be describing the male’s appearance here as it’s usually a male you will hear singing. Females of some species do sing, but more commonly males are the troubadours. Be aware, too that in many bird species, the female’s appearance may differ somewhat from the male’s. Check your friendly local guidebook for more details. And be sure to click on the green links below to hear all these sparrows’ unique songs!]

One Year ‘Round Resident and One That Only Appears to Stick Around

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

In Michigan, Song Sparrows have dark streaks below their white throats and most often the streaks merge into a central spot. Their long tails are another good field mark. But Song Sparrows from other regions will vary in size and coloration.

A Song Sparrow singing in spring sunlight

Spring in our parks burbles with the songs of male Song Sparrows. They perch in small trees or sturdy flower stalks, throw back their heads and let loose with their cheery song. The melody begins with a few, fast single notes, then changes to a quick trill and frequently ends with a short buzz. Males learn their song from males around them when they’re young and according to Cornell’s All About Birds website, the female Song Sparrow “is attracted not just to the song itself, but to how well it reflects the ability of the male to learn.” Females seem to prefer mates whose songs have more learned components and who accurately perform them! Quite the music critics, eh? In the avian world, I’m guessing that’s a good indicator of a bright, reliable mate, though I prefer improvisation myself….

Song Sparrows appear to be in southeast Michigan most of the year – but looks can be deceiving. Cornell University’s subscription website, Birds of the World, indicates that song sparrow flocks usually contain both residents and a few migrators. Research indicates that the ones we see in the summer move a little farther south during cold spells, but return on warmer days. The ones that breed farther north in Canada, however, skip past Michigan in the autumn and go straight to warmer climes for the winter. Researchers call this “leap frog migration.”

Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana)

Swamp Sparrows spend summer days in wet meadows and cattail marshes, using their long legs to poke about in shallow water. Their earth-toned bodies with bold black stripes on their backs make them elusive to the eye in shadowy marshlands.

Like Song Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows breed here and appear to overwinter as well – but perhaps we again are mistaken! In this case, some researchers believe that our summer swamp sparrows do migrate south in each fall but are replaced by overwintering ones that bred farther north – a pattern other birds, like some American Robins, may follow as well. In any case, they are scarce around here in the cold months.

The Swamp Sparrow’s song is really more like a slowed-down trill of notes all on the same pitch. This repetitive, staccato series of notes is not melodious really, but it does carry quite clearly from the edges of a spring wetland. Since most birds don’t sing much out of breeding season, it pays to stop, listen and look near the water’s edge right now if you want to spot this secretive bird.

Though Cornell University Ornithology Lab designates both the Song Sparrow and Swamp Sparrow as present in southeast Michigan in the winter, they aren’t abundant until warm weather arrives. So consider yourself lucky if you see them in the cold months!

Sparrows That Breed Here, But Migrate South in Autumn

Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla)

The Field Sparrow sports a pinkish-orange beak and matching feet, along with a neat white eye ring – quite a distinctive outfit for this small brown bird. Its breast can be beige or gray with a rusty blush hear the throat.

It’s often tough to see Field Sparrows during spring and summer. They tend to stay down in the greenery looking for typical sparrow food – seeds, caterpillars or adult insects. But luckily, despite their elusiveness, their catchy song flows up out of deep meadow grass repeatedly until they are mated. Ben compares their song to the sound of a ping-pong ball dropping – several separate notes at first which quickly accelerate into a rapid series as the tone descends. You’ll hear it everywhere in grassy fields right now.

Birds of the World indicates that when temperatures drop below 20 °F, almost all Field Sparrows – with the exception of a few hardy individuals – move south like human “snow birds.”

Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)

The little Chipping Sparrow‘s rufous cap, black eye-line and beak make a snappy outfit with its crisp light breast and brown wings. Both sexes look alike and make a bright spot in the greenery on a dark day.

The tiny but dapper Chipping Sparrow

The Chipping Sparrow doesn’t quite sing. Its song is a long, fast series of… well… tiny chips – 55 on average in 3.6 seconds! That series of identical sounds ends up sounding more like a mechanical ticking than a song. But hey, he’s a good-looking bird and evidently the ladies like it!

Chipping Sparrows arrive from Florida and the Caribbean in early April and depart by late October. They’re actually found in suburbs more than in rural areas because they prefer open grassy areas near shrubs and evergreens. But we often see them in our parks too. In the wild, they typically nest in a small tree or shrub but keep an eye on your hanging basket at home. They just might be in there, too!

Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)

The Eastern Towhee is a sparrow with a difference! Towhees eschew their relatives’ earth-toned garb and go for a bit more drama! Their outfit includes a black head, upper chest and wings, a bold side band of chestnut brown and a white breast – topped off with a pair of devilish red eyes! Whoo! So much for the common assumption that all sparrows look alike, eh?

The flashiest of our local sparrows, the Eastern Towhee, belting out his “Drink Your Teaaaa” song

And as if that weren’t enough, the male Towhee’s courting song is a quick, jazzy rendition of ” Drink your teaaaaa!” What a guy!

The towhee nests here with his mate who is beautifully dressed with a chocolate brown head, throat and back with a swoosh of chestnut brown above her white breast. They arrive in late March and leave in late October to overwinter in southern Ohio or points even further south. So glad they summer with us here!

Fancy Sparrows that are Just Passing Through…

Some sparrows just make a stopover here in the spring on their way to breed farther north and then pass through again in the fall when migrating to their wintering grounds. They are remarkably different than most of our other sparrows.

White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)

The White-crowned Sparrow‘s crown is slightly peaked most of the time and boldly striped in black and white which makes identifying it much easier. The rest of its head is gray as is its breast and its wings are striped in brown and white. Quite an elegant bird!

The White-crowned Sparrow has a boldly striped head and is more commonly seen alone than in a flock

In spring, the White-crowned Sparrows stop by in our parks are on their way much farther north. They prefer to breed in extremely cool summers. They arrive here from the very southern edge of Michigan or points further south, but are on their way to the northern tier of Quebec, or in Labrador! They don’t seem to sing often in our area, but according to Birds of the World, they do sing year ’round. Their song, learned from neighboring birds when they’re young, starts with an introductory whistle, followed by a tumbling assortment of more whistles and ends with buzz or trill. I’d love to hear that song in the wilds of northern Canada!

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

The White-throated Sparrow can be confused with the White-Crowned because its head is also boldly striped. But its head is also flatter and the telltale field marks area, those bright yellow “lores,” the spots in front of its eyes and a bright white patch beneath its beak. And isn’t that scalloped gray breast fancy?

The White-throated Sparrow also likes cooler summers in which to breed.

The White-throated Sparrow doesn’t find southeastern Michigan a suitable place to raise young either. But it doesn’t venture as far afield. Some of them breed in the top half of Michigan’s “mitten” and in the Upper Peninsula. Others move farther up into Canada. It’s worth learning their plaintive song if you’re spending the summer in upper Michigan. Ornithologists have described the series of two slow descending notes plus a trill as “Poor Mr. Peabody, Peabody Peabody” or perhaps “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” I’ll leave it for you to decide.

Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)

Another unusually fancy sparrow, the Fox Sparrow also passes through our area twice each year. This sparrow is large and plump. Its head and neck are mottled in gray, but its spectacular breast is streaked with rusty-red chevrons and is finished off with a rusty-red back and tail.

The Fox Sparrow is named for his deep rusty color and has a breast covered with chevrons rather than stripes.

This colorful sparrow stops by between mid-March and late April. Like the White-crowned Sparrow, it prefers to breed in very cool locations and is on its way north to the shore of Hudson’s Bay in Northern Canada. We’re less likely to hear the males’ song while they’re migrating. But give a listen to this glorious burbling song of our local subspecies, the Red Fox Sparrow, at this Cornell link near the bottom of the list below the video. At their breeding grounds, the males evidently sing their hearts out. According to Cornell Ornithology, “During summer they sing vigorously at any time from before dawn until long after dark, in fair weather or foul.” Fox Sparrows generally stop back here on their way south between early October and mid-November. Their two-footed, backward “chicken scratching” under your feeder may be a clue to its identity in the early spring and late fall.

Sparrows That Love a Michigan Winter!

Two sparrows come to us only during the winter. Like the Fox and White-crowned Sparrows above, they prefer to breed breeding in the sub-arctic Canadian north. But unlike those sparrows, they can appreciate a Michigan winter and rather than passing on to warmer climes, they spend the winter with us.

American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)

I look forward every year to the arrival of the American Tree Sparrows. They come in small flocks, twittering companionably as they forage. European settlers gave them their name because they associated them with the Eurasian Tree Sparrow of their home countries which does nest in trees. Our American ones, though, look different and spend most of their time on the ground. The field marks for this plump sparrow are its two-toned beak (black on top, yellow below), its rusty cap and eye line and that single spot at the top of its clear, gray breast.

A Tree Sparrow pauses on the bending spike of an Evening Primrose in winter

They breed and raise their young right on the scrubby surface of the tundra up in the Yukon, northern Manitoba or on the western shore of Hudson’s Bay, making nests ringed with white Ptarmigan feathers. In that frigid habitat, the male sings a song that few of us will ever hear. But when they arrive in our area in early October (or later for ones going a bit further south), they chat in groups, throwing “teedle-eets” back and forth. (Look for the calls at the link.) When spring weather turns warm, usually by mid-April, they yearn for some really cold weather and head north to breed. Most of them have migrated by now, but watch for their arrival next fall.

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

Like the Towhee, Dark-eyed Juncos are sparrows that forego brown feathers for a different look – classic black and white with a soft pink beak. I added the blurry photo on the right, taken in a snowstorm, to show its best field mark in flight – a bright white feather on either side of the tail.

The song of the Dark-eyed Junco is a rapid-fire trill on the same note, a song very much like the Chipping Sparrow’s, but a bit more musical. In winter, I usually hear them just chipping quietly within their flock.

Like Tree Sparrows, Juncos also breed in Canada’s frigid north and migrate here in the fall to enjoy a comparatively balmy (!!!) Michigan winter. They appear in our parks in early October but don’t gather in large numbers until mid-November. They often leave in spring later than the Tree Sparrows, but are generally gone by late April. I love to see them under our feeder after a snowstorm, their black bodies creating calligraphy on the snow surface.

But One Invasive, Non-native Sparrow Causes Problems for Other Birds

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

You’ll recognize the non-native male House Sparrow by the black patch under his black bill and the black band at the top of its breast. We used to call it the English Sparrow, though its actually native to most of Europe (except Italy), Asia and north Africa.

The invasive and aggressive non-native House Sparrow – Photo by Rickey Shive (CC BY-NC-ND) at iNaturalist.org

I often hear them chattering in downtown settings, see them scavenging under outdoor tables and building messy nests on commercial signs. House Sparrows are beloved in Europe but present real challenges for our native birds. They frequently invade the nests of other birds – like Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows – destroying eggs, and harming or even decapitating nestlings. The havoc they can create is not a pretty sight. So please do what you can not to feed or shelter these birds though they are usually very difficult to displace. I imagine these birds had predators who kept them in check in their native lands, but they’ve become a widespread and problematic species here in America.

A Fondness for the “Insignificant”

Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it. Thus he undoes the built-in checks and balances by which nature holds the species within bounds.” From Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962

Rachel Carson speaks so simply and beautifully about the need to restore native habitat for wildlife – even little brown sparrows. When they, like other birds, consume caterpillars and adult insects or devour and disperse seeds and berries, they are functioning as part of the “checks and balances” that maintain the delicate web of interrelationships that supports the natural world.

But what’s equally important to me is Rachel Carson’s mention of nature’s “great variety.” Nature didn’t gift us with just one generic “sparrow.” Even in our small township, we have multiple sparrows. The slideshow just above features sparrows less commonly seen in our township parks, but demonstrates the rich diversity of sparrows in Michigan. Each one offers different music to our ears, different patterns and colors to our eyes, and different dancing in the air above our landscape. Nature thrives through diversity and we get the benefit of endless variety.

I love learning about supposedly “insignificant” creatures. I long to know the names and lives of weird little insects that hum and buzz in a meadow, zing through a forest or tunnel beneath the surface. I hope to learn the songs of small birds like the sparrows and the calls of big ones like the Sandhill Cranes. I aspire to using the names of more native plants as each takes its place in the sunlight or shade of a summer’s day and feeds the world around it. I think many of you share that same delight in the seemingly insignificant strands of nature’s intricate matrix. So I hope that here you’ve met a few new sparrows that you’d like to know better. Thanks for being here with me.

4 thoughts on “Meet Your Overlooked Neighbors: The Under-appreciated Sparrows

  1. I’m always so impressed when I read your entries in the Natural Areas Notebook. This particular entry is not only beautifully written but the acompanying links to the songs of the male sparrows just brings the birds to life. Well done Cam! One comment… the house sparrow is really a member of the weaver finch group. Hope to run into you in the field one day. Roger

    • Thank you for providing that useful bit of information, Roger! I wasn’t aware of that! And thanks too for your kind words about the blog. I think you know what a labor of love it is to do any work connected with the natural world.

  2. Outstanding detail, photos and beautiful Sparrow songs – wow! Who knew the variety? Incredible. Thanks, as always, for the well-researched and creatively written articles, Cam. Stay well out there! Mark

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s