American Tree Sparrow

Sparrows and related birds make up many of Ohio’s cold-weather residents.  In warmer seasons, these birds are north of the state, mostly residing in Canada.  Canadian winters being what they are, Ohio and states further south offer a more hospitable climate to pass the cold months.

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at 2 handsome sparrows seen here only in the cold weather.  Another winter sparrow to call Ohio home is less distinctive, and can fly beneath most people’s notice.

American Tree Sparrows are unassuming birds.  These long-tailed birds will sometimes puff out their feathers in the cold, making them look a bit larger than they are- hopefully this keeps them warm.

These birds have a few identifying features.  They have a reddish-brown cap and matching eye stripe along with a mostly gray breast, similar to the Chipping Sparrow which people are more familiar with- but in the winter Chipping Sparrows are in Florida and places further south (good for them!).  Field Sparrows too can look like this, though the head pattern is often less richly colored.  Also, Field Sparrows have a pink bill, whereas Tree Sparrows have a smallish bi-colored bill- the dark upper and a yellow lower mandible is very distinctive.

Another identifying mark on these birds is a single dark spot in the center of the breast.  This isn’t always present, but when you do see it, say hello to a Tree Sparrow.

The reason these birds are easy to miss is that, although they do visit feeders, they usually are found out in weedy fields, fencerows or wood edges.  They don’t have a bold distinctive song like other birds, and they can be rather hard to see when they are foraging for food.  They are of a somewhat retiring nature.  I’ve often heard them making chipping sounds in thickets that are hard to see through.

Like other sparrows, these birds like to stay on the ground, or close to it.  They are at home in shrubs, thickets, the tops of sturdy weeds or low tree branches.  They scratch for food among the leaves and grass, or eat seeds off of dead plants.  This can make them difficult to see at times.  Listen for the small sounds they make to stay in touch with each other while they feed.

This plump bird sits in the typical environment that you can most often see them in.  I don’t know how I managed to focus correctly for this shot!

Goldenrod or Aster seeds are a fine meal for Tree Sparrows.

Tree Sparrows, like other winter sparrows such as White-Throated Sparrows, make a short little ‘seet‘ sound as a call.  This call keeps them in touch with their buddies.  When I hear this, I start looking in the foliage, hoping for a glimpse of the bird in question to try to identify- or, if I’m lucky, get a photograph of.  I’ve got lots of blurry images of a sparrow-shaped blob behind twigs or stems of plants.  The photos here were exceptions.  Imagine my surprise when I saw this particular bird on the very top of a modest-sized evergreen tree!  Very much a photographic exception.

To sum up, the Tree Sparrow is a rather common inhabitant of the cold brown winter fields of Ohio.  These birds, like other cold-weather residents, will head back north when the warmer weather returns.  The birds in these images will be raising their young in the far Canadian and Alaskan north come summer.  They must enjoy cooler weather than most of us do!

Teaser time.  Coming up later in this series, a uniquely colored sparrow and some small active birds that will occasionally flash a very colorful crest.  Keep warm when you go looking for winter birds this season!