Category Archives: Swamp Sparrow

Don’t overlook subtle beauty of winter’s little brown birds

Photo by Kaz/Pixabay.com • The yellow lores on the white-throated sparrow makes this species easy to pick out from a flock of related “little brown birds.”

Amy McGill, a reader from Ohio, sent me an email following last week’s column about dark-eyed juncos. Amy, as it turns out, is a fellow junco lover.

At the time of her email, she was still waiting to see my favorite of all birds make their appearance at her home. She noted that juncos usually return to her home about a week before the end of October, so they are slightly late this year. Consequently, Amy’s “little timely visitors” are making her wonder what has delayed them.

At my own home in northeast Tennessee, the dark-eyed juncos appear to vie with white-throated sparrows for abundance each year. Last winter, the sparrows were far less conspicuous than the juncos. Although we’re only a week into November, both the dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows have absented themselves from my feeders.

With temperatures dipping lower after a particularly hot, dry autumn, some cold-season arrivals have made themselves at home. On Saturday, Nov. 3, a common raven flew over my house. Perhaps to make certain I didn’t neglect to take note, the raven produced its trademark croaking call the entire time the large, dark bird soared overhead.

Photo by Ken Thomas • A Northern Mockingbird patrols a thicket.

A Northern mockingbird visited the feeders on Saturday, Oct. 27, to see what was the commotion from the other birds. After one quick peek, the mocker paid no attention to the available offering of sunflower seeds. At my home, mockingbirds are strictly fall/winter birds and are fairly uncommon.

Ravens and mockingbirds are easier to recognize and identify than sparrows, which are also referred to by birders with some frustration as “little brown birds.” Lumping the sparrows together as a family of similar-looking species does a disservice to them, however.

While most are definitely “little brown birds,” the sparrows offer quite a range of subtle differences in plumage as well as song, making it possible — if at times challenging — to identify them. Some of the winter sparrows in the region include fox sparrow, swamp sparrow, song sparrow, chipping sparrow, white-crowned sparrow and the aforementioned white-throated sparrow.

In similarly distinctive fashion, the white-throated sparrow — especially as spring gets nearer — also acquires a plumage that makes it stand out from the flock. These sparrows have a plumper shape than some of their kin. They have a black-and-white pattern to their head, and a neat “bib” of white feathers covers the throat. The standout feature to this bird’s appearance is the bright yellow spot located between each eye and the bird’s bill. In winter, some white-throated sparrows may lack this spot of yellow or show a less dramatic version, but the approach of spring usually puts puts these birds back into fine form.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay • A white-throated sparrow perches on a branch to sing its easily recognizable song. Many Americans translate the sparrow’s song as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”

Many sparrows, including the white-throated sparrow, prefer to forage for food on the ground. It’s often helpful to purchase a supply of millet seed. When filling your feeders with sunflower seeds, scatter a couple of handfuls of millet seed on the ground beneath the feeders or at the edge of a brushy area. Sparrows like to have quick access to dense cover, so they will feed more securely if the scattered seeds are within quick reach of shelter.

If your yard is devoid of brushy retreats, you can make your own brush pile, perhaps with trimmings from routine autumn landscape maintenance. A brush pile makes a popular gathering place for not only sparrows but also wrens, kinglets and other small songbirds. In addition to security, the brush pile lessens the impact of cold winter winds.

Sparrows don’t always co-exist peaceably. According to the website allaboutbirds.com, many of the larger sparrow species are quite aggressive with their kin. This aggression usually demonstrates itself in a tendency to chase other birds. Apparently, white-crowned sparrows will share their territories with fox sparrows — which are larger birds — but they will give chase to chipping sparrows and dark-eyed juncos in an attempt to drive them from the territory.

Most songbirds live a precarious life that can be measured in only a few years. However, an occasional individual defies the odds. According to the website allaboutbirds.com, the oldest recorded white-throated sparrow was at least 14 years, 11 months old, when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Alberta, Canada.

So, while it’s easy to overlook the sparrows, I’d recommend giving them a second glance. Here are a few relatives of the white-throated sparrow with common names that suggest the identifying feature that helps them stand out from the flock: golden-crowned sparrow, rufous-collared sparrow, cinnamon-tailed sparrow, black-chinned sparrow and black-throated sparrow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Vesper sparrows are uncommon birds in spring and fall in the region, although they do nest on the grassy balds of Roan Mountain.

Dark-eyed junco heralds winter’s approach and marks milestone in weekly bird musings

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A dark-eyed junco, usually a harbinger of wintry weather and snowy days, shells sunflower seeds beneath a feeder.

I wrote my first column about our “feathered friends” on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this column will soon celebrate its 23rd anniversary.

This column has appeared on a weekly basis for the last 23 years in a total of five different newspapers, and in recent years it has been syndicated to several more. The column has also been a great conduit for getting to know other people interested birds and birding. I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years as well. Since February 2014, I’ve also been posting the column as a weekly blog on birds and birding.

I saw my first swamp sparrow of the fall on Oct. 23. Autumn’s a time when many of those so-called “little brown birds,” also known as the sparrows, return to live in the fields, gardens, yards and woodlands around our home. Two of the other anticipated arrivals are white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Sparrows, like this swamp sparrow, often spend the winter months in fields, woods, and wetlands, sometimes visiting feeders in our homes and gardens.

In fact, that first column I wrote back in 1995 focused on one of the region’s most prevalent winter residents— the dark-eyed junco. Experts place juncos among the varied sparrow family. All juncos are resident of the New World, ranging throughout North and Central America. Scientists are continually debating precisely how many species of junco exist, with estimates ranging from a mere three species to about a dozen species.

Some of the other juncos include the volcano junco, yellow-eyed junco, Chiapas junco, Guadalupe junco, pink-sided junco, Oregon junco and Baird’s junco, which is named in honor Spencer Fullerton Baird, a 19th century American naturalist and a former Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

With that introduction and with some revisions I have made through the years, here is that very first column that I ever wrote about birds.

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Photo by Skeeze-Pixabay • A dark-eyed junco clings to a snowy perch.

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Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the dark-eyed junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.

John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The dark-eyed junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.

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Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”

Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.

Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.

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Photo by Ken Thomas • A dark-eyed junco perches on some bare branches on a winter’s day.

Since juncos are primarily ground feeders, they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.

Dark-eyed juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Dark-eyed junco nests on high mountain slopes during the summer month. This dark-eyed junco was photographed at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain during the summer nesting season.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and begin a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

•••••

Back when I wrote that original column, juncos often returned each fall in the final days of October or first days of November. In the last few years, however, their arrival times have grown consistently later in November. At times, it takes a serious snowfall to drive these hardy birds to seek out easy fare at my feeders. I’m hoping they’ll return soon. In the meantime, if you want to share your first dark-eyed junco sighting of the fall, I’d love to hear from you. If you want to share a sighting, have a question or wish to make a comment, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female dark-eyed junco scrambles for sunflowers seeds in the snow.