By: Jim Spencer
If December weather is anything like November’s we are in for a roller coaster ride of temperatures and winds. One thing we can count on is an increased number of native sparrows arriving for the winter. Central Texas is well known for its diversity of sparrows. In winter the seven year-round species are joined by fifteen other species that are expected to winter here or migrate through. Clearly there is more to sparrow diversity than the commonly encountered non-native House Sparrow (which is more closely related to finches than sparrows.)
Beginning bird watchers find that sparrows are challenging to identify, and just call them little brown jobs (LBJ’s for short). Sparrows’ cryptic coloration helps them blend into the scenery in their chosen habitats. When you get a good look at one, you will appreciate its subtle beauty. The various sparrow species range in size from five inches up to about nine inches, with more on the smaller end of the scale. While you might think the larger birds, like the skulking Spotted Towhee, would be easier to see, that is not necessarily the case.
Below are some tips on some of our more common sparrows and where to look for them, starting with your yard or greenbelt. Look up feathers on a songbird to become familiar with some of the terms used.
If you have a seed feeder out you may attract Chipping Sparrows. Dressed in its winter plumage the Chipping has a rufous tinge to its crown, a pale eyebrow and a black eye line that runs from its bill back through the eye and further. It has an unstreaked gray nape, brown back and tail with two white wing bars and a gray unstreaked breast and belly. Chipping Sparrows move around in small flocks and like live oak woodlands.
A suet feeder may attract a White-throated Sparrow. This sparrow likes to forage unseen in tangles and at ground level, staying in contact with others with a “sssst” vocalization, occasionally breaking into a little snippet of its “oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” song. The white throat on the adult is very distinct. So is its strong white eyebrow punctuated with an astonishingly yellow lore right above its bill.
Song Sparrows favor grasses and cattails surrounding ponds and brushy wet areas. Often heard before seen, they make a “chimp” or “wimpf” call note. This is a dark sparrow with a brown crown, gray eyebrow, streaky sides and breast and a long tail. On a spring-like day it might burst into a bit of buzzy song.
Lincoln Sparrows favor thickets in winter. A close relative of the Song Sparrow, this brown sparrow has very crisp streaking on its breast and flanks. The breast streaking is set off by a buffy colored breast.
Your residence’s proximity to natural areas will affect the kinds of sparrows that may show up. Adding some understory like native shrubby Coralberry or Elbowbush, where they can search for food unseen by predators, will increase your chances of attracting them. Creating a native grass patch of Lindheimer Muhly or Sideoats Grama will provide sustainable sustenance, especially for the grassland sparrows needing safe passage on the way to their winter home.
Unfortunately for our native sparrows, habitat loss is contributing to significant population declines. They may have spent last winter in a grassy Texas meadow, and summered in the prairie states or Canada, only to return this fall to find a paved parking lot. If you really want to see a good diversity of sparrows and get a better understanding of sparrow habitat, head over to Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Park. The restored prairie which abuts wooded areas and some grapevine thickets is a sparrow haven in the winter months.