A Bird’s View from Winds Way

Little Brown Birds

a monthly column written by Nancy Gilbert
with photos by Richard Wines
When we moved to the North Fork permanently almost twenty years ago and joined the ranks of an avid group of people learning about birds at Cornell Cooperative Extension, little brown birds were most often referred to as LBJ’s – little brown jobs. I must admit that we were not as excited to find these birds in our binocular fields as we were their more brightly feathered relatives. I now put this down to lack of knowledge and limited experience. Little brown birds are members of the passerine order and are often difficult to identify correctly. This is especially true for the females as they lack the coloring present in males. Passerines comprise more than half of all bird species and are distinguished by the arrangement of their toes, which allows them to perch, and by their singing ability. Today we’re going to take a look at some sparrows, all of which are little brown birds! And the best news is that winter is a wonderful time to see them!
Let’s start with the House Sparrow – a bird easily recognized and not well liked. These birds are so abundant in our yards, even if we don’t feed the birds, that they are often ignored. And yes, they are known to displace native birds such as Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows from nesting boxes and to outcompete other natives for food, adding to their unpopularity. You will usually see them in flocks, hopping around on the ground searching for seed, or taking dust baths, which they love. The males have a black patch on their throats and if you watch House Sparrows feeding you can begin to understand their pecking order. Males with larger throat patches tend to be older and more dominant than younger males and females.
House Sparrows were intentionally introduced to New York City in 1851. Why? Apparently, the city’s trees were being destroyed by the larvae of the linden moth. An avid birder thought he knew the perfect solution and soon House Sparrows had saved the trees but also by 1900 had spread to the Rocky Mountains. Today they can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Native to Eurasia, the population of House Sparrows plummeted in Great Britain and Western Europe by 50% starting in the 1970’s. This decline has begun to reverse itself, but for a bird that seems to adapt so well to both urban and country environments, the decline remains somewhat of a mystery. While House Sparrows are by no means in any danger as a species, their numbers have also declined in many American cities. If we want to maintain biodiversity in urban areas, we need to develop a much broader understanding of urban ecology.


White-throated Sparrow
One of my favorite winter birds, one of 35 sparrows native to North America, is the White-throated Sparrow. Their lovely thin whistled song “Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada” is easy to learn and recognize and is produced all year long. White-throats nest across Canada and spend winters with us. You will usually see them near thickets, in overgrown fields, parks, or in woodsy areas scratching for food amongst the leaves. This is one of many reasons it is so important not to remove all your fallen leaves! The insects that form the basis of the food web need places to overwinter. And the birds need those insects. While all White-throats have a white throat, they come in two morphs – one with white and black stripes on the crown of their heads and the other with tan and black crown stripes. You will see both morphs here. They also have a yellow spot between their eye and bill. A large, plump sparrow with a long tail and small bill, these birds are more than happy to visit your feeders and will be especially content if you provide a heated bird bath and create a brush pile in which to shelter from winter storms.
Song Sparrow
Another ground-foraging sparrow but one that nests in the Northeast as well as in Canada, is the Song Sparrow. They are found throughout North America and are amongst the most abundant and adaptable of our native sparrows. They are also incredibly variable in different parts of the country – both in coloration and vocalizations. Song Sparrows here are russet and gray with bold streaks down white chests. These streaks converge into a central spot often described by birders as a “stick pin”. While you will see them searching for insects in leaf litter, they are also happy to visit bird feeders, where they prefer to forage on the ground. The male of the species uses song to attract mates and to defend his territory. Research has shown that females are most attracted to males who not only sing their song well but also incorporate components learned from an older bird.
Chipping Sparrow
Chipping Sparrows are a slender, smallish sparrow with a bright rusty crown, black eyeline, and an unstreaked grayish belly. They have always seemed to me to be a rather cheery little bird. While non-breeding birds are paler than breeding birds, the black eyeline is always visible. They are short distance migrators that nest in our area but are not likely to remain here for the winter.  While common across the continent, the overall species has declined by about one-third. Chipping Sparrows feed on the ground and will come to feeders for seeds but to feed their young they must forage for the insects. They like to take cover in shrubs and often sing from the tops of small trees. The female builds the nest by herself while the male stands guard. She can be finicky about location and will often start a nest and then leave and begin again in another spot. The completed nest is a loose cup of small twigs and dried grasses lined with animal hair and fine plant fibers.
Swamp Sparrow
An unusual sparrow for me is the Swamp Sparrow. Medium sized with a rounded tail, gray face and collar, rusty cap with a dark line through the eye, and extensive reddish brown in the wings, these birds nest only in wetlands. They perch and forage in vegetation near to the ground or water surface and are especially well suited to their preferred habitat because of their long legs, which allow them to run easily through grasses. Swamp Sparrows can be spotted in our area year-round.
Fox Sparrow
Perhaps my favorite, though infrequent, winter visitor is the Fox Sparrow. This large, rather chunky sparrow is usually seen sending up a spray of leaf litter as it kicks around with both feet in search of food. It is happiest near a dense thicket and is another sparrow that will thank you for creating a brush pile. Named for its rich red hues, this is nevertheless one of our most variable birds. There are four main groups ranging from foxy red to gray to dark brown. Here in the East we are treated to the foxy red.
There are so many more species of little brown birds to enjoy! I would love to hear what you’re seeing. And I would like to thank my husband for his photographs. Richard, however, wants me to be sure and tell you that he has no fancy camera and uses only a small point-and-shoot! In other words, we can all become observers and recorders of the natural world. Happy birding!
A Bird’s View from Winds Way is a monthly column by one of our board members and avid birder, Nancy Gilbert — with photos from her husband Richard Wines — on our local birds. Nancy’s columns appear on our blog, so please tune in each month for more from Winds Way.


Fall 2020 Newsletter:

———— Previous Columns by Nancy Gilbert ————

‘A Bird’s View from Winds Way / Barn Swallows’

‘A Bird’s View from Winds Way / Great Blue Heron’

‘A Bird’s View from Winds Way / Grey Catbird’

‘A Bird’s View from Winds Way / Osprey’



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