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It's Good To Be Brown (Native Sparrows)

Photo Group
Fox Sparrow (top) Harris Sparrow (bottom)
Photo by: 
Rick Jordahl

A few years ago I wrote an article for the Missouri Conservation magazine about sparrows. I chose to write about the “little brown birds” because I have always felt they never get the respect they deserve. They are the Rodney Dangerfields of the bird world.

The truth is that our native sparrows are a great group of birds that are quite beautiful, but they have a fiercely undeserved bad reputation because of an impostor. The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is over abundant, really aggressive and generally a pain to deal with. They were introduced into this country to be the savior of the American farmer, but instead became the scourge of bird feeders coast to coast. Even more insulting for “good” sparrows, these aliens are not even true sparrows. They belong to an old world group of birds known as weavers.

If you can bring yourself to sift through the “little brown birds” at your feeders this fall and winter, you will notice several great birds but…how do you tell them apart? My first rule is to separate them into “striped chests” or “plain chests”. From there, look at face and head patterns.

We have three native stripe-chested birds that visit feeders this time of year. The Song Sparrow is the most common. It is a long-tailed sparrow with a heavily streaked chest with a dark central spot. The Fox Sparrow is a large sparrow that often seen scratching around under or very near cover. It is patterned a lot like a Song Sparrow but if you look close, the spots are actually shaped like little arrowheads. In our area, Fox Sparrows are generally reddish in color. The Lincoln Sparrow is the smallest of the striped chest sparrow. Their chest usually has a buff colored band with lots of fine stripes or dashes. The head is greyer in color.

If your yard and neighborhood has lots of trees, the most common native sparrow with a stripe-free chest should be the White-throated Sparrow. You should notice two major color forms, with both having striped heads alternating dark and either white or tan stripes. Both will have yellow “eyebrow” spots that become more vivid in the spring.

In more open areas, the American Tree Sparrow can be really numerous some years, while quite scarce in others. This small rufous-capped bird has a “stick pin” spot in the center of its otherwise plain chest. Its yellow lower bill is unique as well. Most common in my very open area are the White-crowned and Harris’ Sparrows. These large cousins of the White-throated Sparrow are quite handsome and a treat to have around. The Harris’ Sparrow has a restricted range and Kansas City is on the eastern most side of its wintering grounds.

Don’t be scared to look at the sparrows in your yard. Don’t cheat yourself by being turned off by the impostors, study your sparrows and enjoy the fruits of your labors. If you want more information about our winter sparrows get online and go to http://mdc.mo.gov/nathis/birds/sparrows. It was written a few years ago but it can still be helpful.

By Mark McKellar

Fall 2007