Monthly Archives: September 2018

Common nighthawk flocks form part of fall migration spectacle

Nighthawk

Photo by Jean Potter • A common nighthawk rests on a metal railing.

With September advancing on the calendar, I have been keeping an eye on the skies. For the most part, I focus on the upper branches of trees and feeders during the migration season, but I don’t forget the need to look skyward from time to time.

The reason? Well, that’s the best way to detect soaring raptors or flocks of migrating common nighthawks. The autumn sky is also a popular flyway for other birds, including chimney swifts and swallows.

So, what is a common nighthawk? First, this bird, despite what is implied by its name, is not a hawk. It’s also not strictly nocturnal. Particularly in the fall, nighthawks are active during daylight hours when engaged in catching winged insects. Outside of fall migration, these birds can often be observed over large parking lots or well-lit streets, snatching up insects swarming around the light poles.

The common nighthawk is one of three members of the nightjar family found in the region during the summer months. The other two nightjars are the whip-poor-will and chuck-will’s-widow, birds that produce their namesake vocalizations in the nocturnal hours. Both of these species migrate, but they don’t take the dramatic approach employed by nighthawks. Each fall, common nighthawks form large flocks, ranging in size from dozens to hundreds or even thousands of individuals, as they migrate south for the winter.

john_james_audubon_common_nighthawk_bird_print

Early American naturalist and artist painted this dynamic scene of common nighthawks.

The whip-poor-will, after the common nighthawk, is the second most widespread member of its family to spend its breeding season in North America. The whip-poor-will ranges from southern Canada to the Gulf states. This bird also occurs in Arizona, New Mexico and southwestern Texas. The whip-poor-will favors habitat consisting of deciduous woodlands and the edges of forests.

All members of the nightjar family feed exclusively on insects that are caught on the wing. In this respect, the nightjars can be considered the nocturnal counterparts of the swallows. The nightjars have comparatively large, gaping mouths they use to scoop up flying insects. They also have large eyes, an adaptation to their nocturnal lifestyle.

Whip-poor-will numbers have been declining in the past few decades. These nocturnal birds frequent woodland edges, but they seem to be rather particular about such habitats. A forest that is too mature seems to hold little interest for them. Disturbed habitats, such as those created by logging, are acceptable to the birds once secondary growth begins. As this new growth matures, however, the whip-poor-will apparently abandons such territory. Because of these requirements, whip-poor-wills can be somewhat localized in their distribution and sometimes difficult to locate.

Nighthawk-PHOTO

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • A common nighthawk finds a perch for a brief rest.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite summer activities was sitting on the front porch of my grandparents’ home and listening to the whip-poor-wills call after dark. I remember how the plaintive call would be repeated for long intervals before a passing automobile’s headlights might frighten the bird into silence. Then, after a brief pause, the “whip-poor-will” calls would, tentatively at first, begin again and continue throughout the night.

Today, I’m living in my grandparents’ old home, and the whip-poor-wills no longer call. I heard a single individual that called for a single evening back in May of 1997, but that was apparently a migrating bird that did not remain in the surrounding woodlands. The only member of the nightjar family that I dependably encounter at home these days is the common nighthawk, and then only during that narrow window of late summer and early autumn.

Unlike whips and chucks, the common nighthawk isn’t active only after dark, which makes it much easier to observe these birds. They look somewhat like swifts and swallows but are much larger. They are brownish-gray birds with pointed wings and forked tails. They are easily identified by distinctive white patches on the underside of their wings.

The nightjar, or Caprimulgidae, family of birds is also sometimes known as “goatsuckers.” There are almost 80 species of nightjars in the world. Less than 10 occur in North America. The common nighthawk, whip-poor-will and the chuck-will’s widow are neotropical migrants. While they breed in a wide range of territory in North America, they spend their winters in Central and South America. Like all nightjars, nighthawks feed almost exclusively on insects, which they catch on the wing.

Many of the common nighthawk’s relatives have been given descriptive names, such as long-trained nightjar, collared nightjar, spot-tailed nightjar, red-necked nightjar, golden nightjar, fiery-necked nightjar, swamp nightjar, pennant-winged nightjar, lyre-tailed nightjar, little nightjar, sickle-winged nightjar, rufous-bellied nighthawk, short-tailed nighthawk, sand-coloured nighthawk and least nighthawk.

So, keep looking skyward. The next flock of migrating common nighthawks may fly over your home. These flocks are usually on the move throughout September although they begin to appear as early as late August. They can also appear almost magically, as if out of thin air. First, observers may see one of two birds, then several, followed quickly by dozens or sometimes hundreds as they wheel and cavort in the skies overhead with impressive grace and agility. I’ve seen flocks that would easily number more than 500 birds in locations throughout the region, although flocks often number only a couple of dozen birds. The two flocks I’ve observed so far this migration season numbered about thirty and fifty birds, respectively.

41004068_10215014667832542_3336138056443887616_o

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Rising clouds provide a backdrop for a flock of migrating nighthawks.

 

 

The world can be a big, bad place for tiny hummingbirds

Mantis-Four

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Large mantises have been known to prey on ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Many years ago I read an account of a scarlet tanager making a snack of a ruby-throated hummingbird. Memory being what it is, I am no longer sure if that account was corroborated or one of those urban legends of birding.

A few pertinent facts should be considered. Male scarlet tanagers look striking in their red and black plumage. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are attracted to the color red. In the details I recall of the story about the predatory tanager, the hummingbird kept flying close to the tanager as if attracted to the red plumage. If so, it was a case of curiosity kills the cat or, in this case, the hummingbird. The tanager seized the hummingbird in its bill and, for good measure and to “tenderize” its prey, beat the hummingbird against the side of a branch. All of this took place before a crowd of birders who observed the incident through their binoculars. I don’t recall anyone taking a photo of the hummingbird’s tragic demise.

An email from Gene Counts reminded me of the tale of the tanager and the hummingbird. Gene, who lives in Haysi, Virginia, sent me a photograph and a short note about a praying mantis that stalks hummingbirds as they visit his feeders for a sip of sugar water.

MantisVsHummer

Photo by Gene Counts • This photo was shared by Gene Counts, who described how the mantis stalked hummingbirds that came to his feeder.

Gene told me of his excitement upon capturing the large insect’s behavior in a photograph.

“I just had to share this picture with you,” Gene wrote. “After all, my wife, Judy, was more excited today than the day we married in Chicago 54 years ago.”

He certainly hooked my attention with that introduction.

“A praying mantis is using our feeder as his own private hunting preserve,” Gene continued in his email. “The mantis follows and stalks the hummingbirds all the way around 360 degrees.”

So far, the stalking has only resulted in “several near misses,” but Gene declared that he is ready to pounce in case the mantis gets lucky.

“It has been four hours and he has lowered his goal,” Gene wrote of the patient mantis. “He is now clinging to the bottom (of the feeder) waiting for an insect. Now I can expel my breath as he no longer an avian threat.”

While Gene’s mantis may not be an immediate threat to hummingbirds visiting his yard in Haysi, does that mean we can be complacent when these large insects share our yards and gardens with hummingbirds?

Ruby-throated-WILLOWS

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the region tend to fluctuate each year, but people should usually see a spike in their numbers as the hummingbirds end summer nesting and start migrating south again.

 

Documented evidence exists to identify large praying mantises as predators on ruby-throated hummingbirds. A brief foray online found numerous instances of hummers falling victims to these large carnivorous insects.

There are two species of mantises in the region — the European, or praying mantis, and the Chinese mantis — capable of capturing hummingbirds. Both species were introduced in the 1800s to act as a predator of insect pests detrimental to crops and gardens. The Chinese mantis can reach a length of 4.3 inches, while the European mantis achieves a length of about 3.5 inches. A third species — Carolina mantis — reaches only a length of 2.5 inches and should not pose a threat to ruby-throated hummingbirds, which are about 3.5 inches long.

Although introduced from Europe, the European mantis (Mantis religiosa) has earned recognition as the official state insect of Connecticut. The native Carolina mantis is the official state insect for South Carolina.

In Central and South America, where the world’s more than 300 species of hummingbirds reach their greatest diversity, there are also more species of predatory mantises. Some of these tropical insects prey on the tropical counterparts to the ruby-throated hummingbird.

Consider the way the mantis makes a perfect predator. It’s spiky forelimbs are spiky and serrated, making them perfect for seizing and grasping. This insect’s triangular head can turn their heads 180 degrees to scan its surroundings with two large compound eyes. A mantis also has three other simple eyes to increase its keen vision. Brutal mouthparts can easily tear apart and devour any prey the mantis manages to catch with its ambush hunting style.

Hummingbirds, regardless of species, are in a tough spot in the food chain. A bird not much bigger than many large insects is going to be a target for opportunistic predators like a mantis that will attempt to kill and consume anything small enough for them to make the effort.

p03mnqtd

Maria Sibylla Merian, a German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator, was one of the first naturalists to observe insects directly. She painted this horrific work featuring a large spider preying on a hummingbird that had been dutifully incubating her eggs. When she died in 1717, she was recognized as one of the world’s foremost entomologists.

To make matters worse for ruby-throated hummingbirds, some large spiders and the bigger dragonflies have also been documented as hummingbird predators. When ruby-throated hummingbirds retreat to Central America for the winter months, they also face threats from lizards and snakes.

The list of predators that have been known to eat ruby-throated hummingbirds extends to bullfrogs, as well as many raptors, including kestrels, merlins and sharp-shinned hawks. Blue jays and other birds will raid hummingbird nests for eggs or young. Squirrels and chipmunks are also nest predators.

nature water eyes pond

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com. Large frogs have also been known to prey on hummingbirds.

Despite all these perils, some ruby-throated hummingbirds have achieved a “long” life. The oldest on record was a ruby-throated hummingbird banded at the age of nine years and one month. Most elder hummingbirds are females. Few male hummingbirds, perhaps because of the energy they expend dueling with each other, reach their fifth birthday.

It’s definitely not easy being as tiny as a hummingbird in a world of fearsome giants, but birders who have seen a hummingbird hover boldly in front of their faces know how these tiny birds take life in stride. They may have a disadvantage in size, but that doesn’t keep them from living life as if they were as big as an eagle.

Rubythroat

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Despite a perceived disadvantage of size, ruby-throated hummingbirds are quite capable of thriving in a giant world.

American redstart launches autumn’s parade of migrating warblers

AmericanRedstart-Male

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male American redstarts are unmistakable warblers in their vibrant orange, black and white plumage.

The parade of warblers through my yard has kicked off. I noticed the first arrivals in the final days of August. A young male American redstart in the wispy branches of a creekside weeping willow represented the first fall warbler to put in an appearance this year. He spent considerable time making his way through the tree branches in search of insect prey. Redstarts, like other species of warblers, lead a very active lifestyle, seemingly always on the go.

In the following days, other warblers joined the redstart, including a black-throated green warbler, black-and-white warbler, black-throated blue warbler and chestnut-sided warbler, as well as other migrants such as red-eyed vireo, gray catbird and blue-gray gnatcatcher. I’m still seeing ruby-throated hummingbirds contesting for access to my sugar water feeders, as well.

American redstarts are among the many neotropical migrants that return to the region each year. Redstarts nest in the region’s mountains up to an elevation of about 4,000 feet and are fairly common from spring to fall. Most American redstarts arrive each spring in late April and immediately get down to the business of raising young. I’ve seen American redstarts constructing nests as early as late April.

Redstart-Aug29

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young male American redstart in the branches of a willow.

The American redstart, even more so than its kin, strikes me as a hyperactive songbird, always on the go, flitting from branch to branch, fanning out its tail feathers or snatching winged insects flushed from cover. During the nesting season, the male sings a jumbled crescendo of buzzy notes.

There are 115 species of warblers found in the New World, but the American redstart is one of a handful that doesn’t include the word “warbler” in its common name. Other members of the warblers that don’t bear the word in their names include Northern parula, ovenbird, common yellowthroat, Northern waterthrush and Louisiana waterthrush.

The adult male American redstart is unmistakable. His mostly black feathers are accented with bright orange-red patches on the sides, wings and tail. There’s a patch of white on the lower belly and under the tail. For beginners who despair of learning the so-called “confusing fall warblers,” an adult male American redstart is so easily recognized that a sighting of one can produce a big confidence boost.

Redstart-Perch

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female American redstart perches for a brief moment before resuming her active lifestyle.

Females show a similar pattern, being gray-olive where the males are black; females are lemony yellow where the males are orange; both have with the same white underparts. A female redstart works alone at nest construction and also does solo duty incubating up to five eggs.

In autumn and spring, there are young male American redstarts that look like an intermediate form between an adult male and adult female. Adults and young birds all flash and fan their tail feathers almost constantly. Most experts believe the flashes of color in the tail help the birds to flush prey insects into flight. According to the website, “All About Birds,” American redstarts consume more flying insects than most other warbler species. Their dietary preference for winged insects also brings them into competition with other flycatching species, such as least flycatcher.

American redstarts nest in in damp woodlands across much of the eastern and northern United States and southern Canada. This warbler becomes much more general in its habitat preferences during the winter and can be found in Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Winter habitat ranges from mangrove forests and scrub thickets to plantations for coffee and citrus fruits. A few even take up residence in wooded section of urban areas.

IMG_7764

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male American redstart is easily distinguished from other warblers that nest in North America.

An occasional American redstart defies the odds and achieve a long life, for a songbird. The oldest known redstart was a male more than 10 years old. According to the website, “All About Birds,” that individual was recaptured and rereleased by a Canadian banding station.

Early French and Spanish explorers gave this pretty songbird some names to match its appearance. From the French, the American redstart received the name “paruline flamboyante,” or flamboyant warbler. The Spanish bestowed the name “candelita Norteña,” or Northern candlelight.

Two other redstarts — the painted redstart and slate-throated redstart — are tropical cousins to the American redstart. The painted redstart ranges throughout Mexico and Nicaragua, but this bird on occasion ventures into pine-oak forests in the southwestern United States. With its vibrant plumage of red, black and white, the painted redstart is just as boldly colored as the American redstart.

In addition, the American redstart has about a dozen close relatives known as the whitestarts, which hail from Central and South America. Like the American redstart, the whitestarts are birds exclusively of the New World. Some of these birds have been bestowed with descriptive names such as brown-capped whitestart, collared whitestart, spectacled whitestart, golden-fronted whitestart and yellow-crowned whitestart.

1-american-redstart-john-james-audubon

Early naturalist and artist painting this scene of a pair of active American redstarts.

Ironically, there is also a family of Old World redstarts, but these birds are closely related to thrushes, not warblers. The species in this family have been gifted with such descriptive names as white-throated redstart, blue-fronted redstart, plumbeous redstart, black redstart and white-bellied redstart.

The warblers are one of the families of birds that got me hooked on birding. They make the fall season an exciting time of the year. I’m always a little sad once the season’s ended, knowing that I won’t see many warblers until next spring. Get outdoors and enjoy migration. You may be surprised what birds visit your own yard.

Spectacle of fall migration offers bonanza of birding opportunities

For many birds, fall migration is well underway. The first hints of fall migration are being reported by area birders who have reported sightings of everything from egrets and terns to warblers and shorebirds. I got my first indication of migration on Aug. 27 when I observed an American redstart, black-throated green warbler and black-and-white warbler in my yard.

Redstart-Aug29

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American redstart forages in the branches of a willow tree.

The yearly rush to return to the tropics is a true natural phenomenon among birds such as the broad-winged hawk. Hundreds if not thousands of these raptors will pass through the region at points like the abandoned fire tower on Clinch Mountain near Mendota, Virginia. Records on migrating raptors have been kept at this location since 1958. The broad-winged hawk, a raptor found in the region during the summer, makes a migration flight back to South America every fall that astonishes human onlookers who gather along mountain peaks to witness the spectacle. The hawks form large flocks, also called kettles, that can number in the thousands.

The broad-winged hawk belongs to the genus Buteo, which includes such related raptors as the red-shouldered hawk, rough-legged hawk and red-tailed hawk. In the Europe, members of this genus of hawks are often called “buzzards,” a term that came over with early settlers in North America. To this day, many people still refer to any large, soaring bird as a buzzard.

Many birds migrate out of the tropics each spring to avoid competition from numerous relatives. Others find North America a land of abundant, albeit temporary, resources. This land of plenty offers a wealth of insects, seeds, fruit and other nourishing, nutritious food to help parent birds keep their strength while they work to ensure their young thrive.

WanderingGlider

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Experts have documented long-distance migration flights by the Wandering Glider, a species of dragonfly.

The phenomenon of migration isn’t exclusive to the neotropical migrants of the New World. Birds in other parts of the world migrate, too. Migration isn’t even exclusive to our fine feathered friends. Many creatures, from wildebeest and caribou to dragonflies and butterflies, impress humans with their endurance as they stage seasonal migrations.

The Arctic tern takes the practice of migration to extremes. This small seabird travels each year from its Arctic nesting grounds to the Antarctic region, where it spends the winter months. Put into terms of mileage, the Arctic tern can travel about 50,000 miles in a single year. For a bird with a body length of about 15 inches and a wingspan of about 28 inches, this incredible migration is an astonishing feat.

arctic_tern

While its migration does not normally bring Arctic terns close to the region, some of this bird’s relatives do offer viewing opportunities for area birders during fall migration. Black terns have been making stops at ponds, rivers and lakes in the region for the past few weeks. This small terns nests on large bodies of fresh water in the interior of the United States and Canada. During the summer nesting season, adult black terns have a black head and body, but the wings are dark gray. By autumn, these terns show an almost entirely white plumage with some darker accents making them similar to other small terns such as Forster’s tern and common tern.

The ruby-throated hummingbird, a favorite of many bird enthusiasts living in the eastern United States, makes an impressive migration each year. Just to reach the United States, these tiny birds undertake a strenuous journey. They leave their wintering grounds in Central America to return to the United States and Canada for the nesting season. Most of these tiny birds, which are barely four inches long, make a non-stop flight of more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico. The journey can take almost an entire day!

MommyHummer

However, the ruby-throated hummingbird is not the champion of long-distance migration among hummingbirds. That accolade goes to the rufous hummingbird, which spends the nesting season in western North America, ranging from southern Mexico to as far north as Alaska and Canada. Its migration journey of almost 4,000 miles is made in stages over the course of a few months. Like ruby-throated hummingbirds in the eastern half of North America, rufous hummingbirds require extra energy to successfully complete such a lengthy migration. They pig out on flower nectar, sugar water mixtures at feeders, and tiny insects to ensure they have the reserves to reach their destinations.

Shorebirds, which in North America can consist of birds ranging from turnstones and sandpipers to willets and avocets, are champion migrants. For instance, the bar-tailed godwit makes an impressive non-stop migratory flight. This shorebird nests in parts of Scandinavia, northern Asia and Alaska. Some of these godwits make a nine-day, non-stop migratory flight that takes them from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea of China, a distance of almost 6,000 miles. Needless to say, since the godwits make no stops along the way, they must also go without food for the duration of their journey.

GODWIT

Most of the warblers that nest in North America retreat to Central and South America during the winter months. Few warblers, however, make as great a journey as the blackpoll warbler. Instead of migrating over land, this five-inch-long warbler undertakes a two-stage migration. The first half of the migration is a non-stop flight of about 1,500 miles. Every fall, these tiny birds fly over the ocean during this part of their migration, departing from Canada or the northern United States and not stopping until they reach various locations in the Caribbean. There they will spend some time recovering from the exhausting first half of their journey before they continue their way to such South American countries as Colombia and Venezuela. Once again, during the time they spend flying over open ocean, these tiny warblers do not feed.

Even birds that cannot fly undertake migrations. For instance, the Adélie penguins of the Ross Sea in the Antarctic travel about 8,000-10,900 miles annually to their breeding colonies. Of course, they migrate by swimming, not flying, these long distances. The Australian emu, a smaller relative of the ostrich, makes seasonal migrations on foot to ensure access to abundant food supplies at all seasons.

animal beaks bird cold

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Most of our favorite summer birds — scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, ruby-throated hummingbirds, gray catbirds — will make an exodus in the coming weeks. Even as some of our beloved favorites depart, we can take some cheer in the knowledge they will be replaced by some welcome winter residents, including dark-eyed juncos, white-crowned sparrows, brown creepers and yellow-rumped warblers. Fall is indeed a time of departure for many birds, but it’s also a time to make new friends with the other birds that should soon start arriving in our yards and gardens by mid-October.

Keep alert to the changing of the guard. The mix of bird species in your yard will change dramatically from day to day for the next couple of months. It’s a time bound to yield some surprises.

Bay-BreastedWarbler

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Warblers, like this bay-breasted warbler, are experts at remaining hidden in the leaves of trees. Their energetic movements make warblers difficult to follow through binoculars. In addition, bay-breasted warblers are among those species described as “confusing fall warblers,” because their autumn appearance is a dramatic departure from the look they had in the spring.

Chipping sparrow a common summer nesting bird

ChippingSparrow-ONE

Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS • A black line running through the eye bordered by a white stripe, as well as a rusty-red cap, helps distinguish the chipping sparrow from other “little brown birds” that belong in the sparrow family.

I needed to do some homework before I could answer a question posed to me by Frances Rosenbalm of Bristol, Tennessee. As she communicated to me in an email, she had discovered a bird’s nest in her garden and wanted help identifying the species that built the nest.

“I have a bird that made a nest in the top of my tomato vines,” Frances explained in her email. “It had four turquoise speckled eggs in it.”

Frances described the nest as being made with large twigs and moss. “What kind of bird do you think it may be?” she wrote. She also noted that her garden is located near a farm field.

“I was so surprised to find this nest,” she wrote. “In all of all the years I have put a garden out, this has never happened,” Frances concluded.

51bUn1kQ7XL._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_ 2

After doing some research, which included poring over the pages of a great book by Hal H. Harrison titled, “A Field Guide to Birds’ Nests: United States East of the Mississippi River,” a work in the Peterson Field Guides series, I was able to write back to Frances with the news that I might have solved the mystery of the nest in the tomato vines.

The Harrison field guide is an exceptional book and one that’s perfect for someone who wants to know a little more about the birds other than their names. Entries for each bird include photographs depicting both the nest and the eggs as well as informative text with supplemental information about nesting birds in the Eastern United States.

Based on the description of the nest and its eggs, as well as its location near a farm field, I identified the nest described by Frances as belonging to chipping sparrows. I found some photographs online of chipping sparrow eggs in a nest and sent that in an email for her to consider.

Frances responded in another email. “I do believe you are right,” she wrote. “The eggs look a lot like the photo, and I have seen some birds that look like (chipping sparrows) flying around.”

For a species often lumped under the grouping of “Little Brown Birds,” the chipping sparrow is quite distinctive. In spring and summer, chipping sparrows sport a crisp, neat plumage with frosty gray underparts, a gray and white face and a striking black line through the eye. An easily recognizable field mark is the bright rusty crown atop the bird’s head.

ChippingSparrow-TWO

Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS • Chipping sparrows will form flocks for the winter season.

When horses were more common in daily American life, the chipping sparrow took advantage of this resource to almost invariably line their nests with horsehair. Now that not all nesting chipping sparrows have access to horses, these birds use fine plant fibers or hair gathered from other sources, including people, to line their nests.

Once a nest is constructed, a female chipping sparrow lays and incubates three to four eggs, which take about 14 days to hatch. Chipping sparrows often attempt to raise two broods in a single nesting season. Although dense evergreen trees are a preferred nesting location, these birds will also nest in vines.

During the warm months of the summer nesting season, chipping sparrows feed almost exclusively on insects. When winter makes insects scarce, these small birds switch their diet to one of seeds. Chipping sparrows will also feed on small fruits and berries.

Chipping sparrows will sometimes nest as many as three times in a single season. Although territorial during the nesting season, these birds form sizable flocks for migration and during the winter season. In making reference to these flocks, observers can use other descriptive terms. Flocks of sparrows have also been called a crew, a flutter, a host, a tournament and a quarrel. I am partial to a flutter of sparrows, but anyone who has watched the pecking order at the feeders will also understand the origins of a quarrel of sparrows.

Chipping-sparrow-john-james-audubon

John James Audubon painted this chipping sparrow.

There are a couple of well-known Biblical passages using sparrows for powerful pieces of symbolism. One alludes to the fact that if God provides for small songbirds like sparrows, he will certainly provide for human beings. In addition, there is a passage that maintains that not a single sparrow falls without God being aware of the loss. A famous hymn, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” is based on such biblical verses.

The world’s sparrows are divided into two large groupings — the Old World, or true sparrows, and the American sparrows of the New World.

Although largely considered rather dull, plain birds in appearance, some of them have earned descriptive names such as great sparrow, Arabian golden sparrow, green-backed sparrow, five-striped sparrow, yellow-browed sparrow and golden-crowned sparrow.

FieldSparrow-One

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A field sparrow perches on a branch. These sparrows are closely related to chipping sparrows and relatively common in Northeast Tennessee.

Welcome chipping sparrows and their kin with a well-stocked feeder and perhaps some thick tomato vines for concealing a nest. Unfairly dismissed by some as plain, dull songbirds, the sparrows reward a closer look with some subtle behaviors and plumages as worthy of additional attention as much as some of their more colorful relatives.