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Nature Nearby: Sparrows are confusing

sparrow on branch

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Posted on: March 1, 2021

By Fred Seitz

I freely admit I am not a birder, though not for lack of trying. I have gone on numerous bird walks and heard various presentations about local birds. Despite my lack of expertise, I still enjoy watching the little dinosaur descendants come to my backyard feeders to pig out every day. I particularly enjoy the confrontations between one particularly bullying grey squirrel and the various flying contenders for the seed bounty I offer. 

My personal feeder favorite is the Carolina chickadee who swoops in for its share, even when the bully squirrel is feeding (some of the larger birds are apparently intimidated by the bushy-tailed rodent). Carolina chickadees have a black cap and neck, punctuated by white cheeks. Their back, wings and tail are gray. While my favorite chickadee is a frequent visitor, I’ve learned that this seed eater is also fond of insects from trees and logs. Of course, at this time of year, many of those insects have perished.

Even the beautiful northern cardinals (who are considerably larger than my little chickadees) seem intimidated by the raiding rodent. These eye-catching, medium-size birds also consume insects and spiders. Madam Cardinal may not have the flashy red color of her partner, but with her scarlet highlights, she’s still quite noticeable.

Another visitor, who seems to avoid Brer Squirrel by scheduling his almost daily raids at random times, is the red-bellied woodpecker. His black-and-white barred back and bright red cap make him a striking and attention-getting sight. This seed grabber makes most of his living by munching on wood-boring insects.

But amidst this flurry of bullies and birdies are those confusing sparrows I mentioned in the headline. As I try to identify the little sparrows at my feeders, I frequently refer to Stokes Field Guide to Birds. While the book is helpful, with well-intended “learning pages,” the clues to help identify different sparrow types — eye rings and tail patterns, and more — are often a challenge to see when the little buzz bombers are moving rapidly. 

I experienced a small amount of personal success when I accurately identified a white-throated sparrow as a regular visitor to my feeder. I’m not sure if the little guy or gal is just a glutton, staying awhile to eat its fill, or if it was just trying to help me in my desperate bird-identifying endeavors.

Additionally, while I have frequently seen dark-eyed Juncos both at my feeder and in some nearby trees, I was interested to learn that they are also considered sparrows.  

I heartily hope that you’ll put out several bird feeders of your own, and I also recommend wintery walks at Lake Artemesia for bird watching. There, the glaucous gulls (I think that’s a correct identification) and the mallards are more laid back than my feeder visitors. However, beware of assertive geese who take issue with anyone who gets too close.

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