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Identifying those darn sparrows

Watching your feeders offers the perfect opportunity to hone your sparrow ID skills. Most sparrows in natural habitats have the annoying habitat of hunkering in the tall grass or hiding within a mass of shrubs, giving us fleeting glimpses as they pop up and then disappear again. Birds at feeders often stay longer giving you more time for study.

Position your feeders so you get good looks at the visiting birds. Place at least one platform-style feeder near your watch window, and supply it with a seed mix that includes white millet.

Learn one or two features that distinguish one bird from all others. Take note of characteristics that could help with rapid IDs in the field. It’s helpful to know ahead of time which birds are likely to cause confusion. Get to know the birds that occur in our area, then study these in a good field guide. A good guide should include plumages of juvenile birds since in some species the birds less than one year old look different from older birds.

Closely related birds are most similar. How do you know which birds are related? Your field guide is usually organized by taxonomy – that is, relatedness! So birds grouped together in the guide are more related. Look at the scientific names – birds of the same genus (the first of the two parts of the scientific name) are closely related.

Look at the photos of these two beauties – both can be seen at winter feeding stations in our area. Both are in the genus Spizella. They’re nearly the same size, and have the same general coloration and patterns. But what’s different? Look at bill color, facial pattern, breast, etc. Does anything else grab your attention? Remember, how we perceive color can be affected by lighting, so color per se is not always the best diagnostic feature.

American Tree Sparrow

Field Sparrow


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