One of the recent new arrivals at my home during the last of the February storms was a fox sparrow, who fed along with such birds as purple finches, pine siskins, American goldfinches and dark-eyed juncos.
In North America, the sparrows are classified in the Emberizidae family, which also includes the buntings, cardinals, grosbeaks and tanagers. The American, or New World, sparrows are a diverse group of seed-eating songbirds with conical bills. Many of them are brown or gray in color, leading to the term “little brown birds” being used to describe a family of similar birds. On closer study, each species of sparrow is quite unique, with many of them having distinctive head patterns or splashes of color apart from the dull browns and grays.
Although they share the name “sparrow,” American sparrows are more closely related to Old World buntings than they are to the Old World sparrows. In fact, the only true Old World sparrow in Northeast Tennessee is the House Sparrow, which was introduced to the United States and is not a native bird.
Although the label “little brown birds” is somewhat accurate for sparrows, learning to distinguish most of the more common sparrows isn’t that difficult. Observing those sparrows that visit feeders is a good place to start. Other sparrows that will come to feeders include song sparrow, field sparrow, chipping sparrow, white-throated sparrow and white-crowned sparrow. The dark-eyed junco and Eastern towhee are also members of the sparrow family, but their common names do not include the term “sparrow.”
Worldwide, there are many superstitions connected with birds commonly known as “sparrows.” In the book The Folklore of Birds, author Laura C. Martin notes that in China the sparrow is a foreteller of good luck. She also points out that in Japan the sparrow is a symbol for gentleness, gratitude and joy.
Keep in mind, however, that sparrows in Japan and China are not among the same family of birds known as sparrows that are found in the United States. In fact, with a few exceptions, our native sparrows are unique to North America.
For instance, the fox sparrow is a large, plump bird that in many parts of North America is most familiar as a migrant or wintering bird. The fox sparrow has a rusty tail and a streaked breast, evocative of a fox, hence its common name. Its plumage is dominated by brick-red and gray feathers.
In addition to a rather distinctive appearance for one of the so-called “Little Brown Birds,” the fox sparrow can easily be recognized by its behavior, too. This bird has a vigorous, distinctive way of foraging on the ground, kicking backward with both feet to uncover food. In fact, the instinct to forage in this manner means they are most often seen on the ground below a feeder instead of perched on a feeder like other birds.
I’ve noticed over the years that February and March is usually the best time of the year to observe this winter sparrow. Even when these large sparrows are present, it often takes a heavy snow to bring them out of their tangled thickets to our feeders. Other sparrows are less frequent visitors to yards, and can most often be found in the region during the migration season. These sparrows of the transitional periods between the seasons include savannah sparrow, vesper sparrow and swamp sparrow. March and April are good times to look for these sparrows.
Most fox sparrows spend the nesting season in remote, fairly inaccessible locations as far north as Alaska and Canada. As a result, most people only see these birds during the winter months when they can become very reliable visitors to feeders. The recent heavy snows at the end of February brought a single fox sparrow to my feeders. The bird arrived early each morning and usually didn’t extend its visit beyond mid-afternoon.
Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. Friend him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email firstname.lastname@example.org.