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Harris's Sparrow

Harris's Sparrow
Harris's Sparrow (spring plumage)
Photo by: 
Mary Nemecek

If you know me as a birder, you surely know that I love our native sparrows. These great birds just don’t get any respect due to an imposter, the troublesome House Sparrow. Of the many native sparrows, none are more significant to our area than the Harris’s Sparrow.

Our largest sparrow, Harris’s breed exclusively in Canada and winter in the very heart of the heartland. This limited wintering range has always made this bird very special to our local birders.So much so that the Burrough’s Audubon Society adopted it as their mascot bird.

Like many species, the Harris’s Sparrow looks very different in its breed- ing plumage than when they first arrive in the fall. The very white chest and belly are the same as is the brown mottled back, but the face and chest vary a lot. In the fall their faces are brown with limited black on the head, face and down the chest. From mid-April on, the black deepens and fills in, while the facial feathers molt to a beautiful light grey. They are very attractive birds.

The most likely place to find Harris’s Sparrow in the fall and winter is in a pile of brush on the edge or in a field. They are birds of open country but love the secu- rity the brush provides. I quite often find them mixed in with White-crowned and American Tree Sparrows.

They do visit feeders and in some years they can be quite common. This winter was so mild, they were quite a treat for people to see. I still expect them to be seen this spring before they take off north again. They prefer millet seed spread along the ground near brushy cover. A favorite “natural” spring food for them are dandelions. Watch for them feeding on the seed heads.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all sparrows are the same. Throw down some of our Ground Throw Mix and study the variety of sparrows that come to feed. Keep your eyes open for our largest member!

By Mark McKellar