Two Handsome Sparrows


(This column was first published in the April 29, 2002 Buffalo News.)


For bird watchers sparrows pose identification problems and there are several sources of this difficulty. First, there are many sparrow species. I count ten that are common at one time or another here and three that are uncommon or local in occurrence. This listing does not even include the ubiquitous house or English sparrow that is an only distantly related weaver finch. Second, the plumage of several of these sparrows is quite similar. And third, many sparrows are shy birds that give the observer only fleeting glimpses.


In this column I do not undertake to distinguish that baker's dozen of species. Rather, I discuss two especially handsome sparrows that pass through this region each spring and fall on their way to and from their breeding grounds in the far north. These attractive birds are especially easy to identify once you know a few distinguishing features.


In his life history account of the white-crowned sparrow, Roland C. Clement perfectly characterizes this bird:* "The white-crown has long had the reputation of being an aristocrat among the [sparrows]. His neat attire, striking crown, and his habit of stretching his head upward to look around have probably combined to earn him this title."  Indeed, this species calls to my mind words like neat, elegant, dapper and well groomed.


This species' name provides its best field marks: the bright white stripe over the top of its head and another though its eye are accented by paralleling black stripes. The more common white-throated sparrow has similar markings but has yellow in that second stripe and also, as its name suggests, a bright white throat. The white-crown also has a pink bill. Both species have plain breasts and white wing-bars.


But you don't even need those characters to separate these two birds. The white-throat doesn't enjoy the good posture of the white-crown. It is more mouse-like as it scurries about the undergrowth. You need then only remember the white-crowned sparrow as a sparrow with bright white head markings and excellent upright stature. Even the less elegantly marked females that accompany the males I have described here are easily distinguished from other species by their posture.


The other handsome species is the fox sparrow, a large sparrow strongly marked with stripes that are variously described as rufous, rusty, or reddish-brown. The background for these stripes is gray on its upper parts and white on its breast. Its tail is solid rufous like the hermit thrush. For those who know our common resident song sparrow, the fox sparrow is simply bigger and more brightly colored. Just as you separate the white-crowned sparrow from other sparrows by posture, you distinguish this bird by its brighter color.


Neither of these species breeds anywhere in New York State. Their summer range is in fact almost identical, a band extending across northern Canada whose southern border passes through Moosonee at the south end of James Bay. But whereas the fox sparrow nests in thickets and forests, the white-crown is a bird of more open areas.


Although a few white-crowned sparrows winter here and visit feeders for sustenance, most of them retreat farther to our southwest. Former Niagara Frontier birder Clark Beardslee reported that in spring many white-crowns migrate through this area from west to east, passing north of Lake Erie and then following the south shore of Lake Ontario to Oswego before heading north. Fox sparrows winter south of the Mason-Dixon line and follow a more standard migration route.


Look for these attractive sparrows on your lawns or at your feeders this spring. You'll be well rewarded when you see them.-- Gerry Rising

* "Zonotrichia leucophrys leucophrys (Forster): Eastern White-crowned Sparrow" in Life Histories of North American Cardinals, Grosbeaks, Buntings, Towhees, Finches, Sparrows, and Allies, Oliver L. Austin, Jr., ed., Arthur Cleveland Bent, series ed. (Washington, D.C.: United States National Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, 1968), Part 3, pp. 1273-1291.