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It's All in the i-Details - 4 Sparrows

If you picked up one of the Birds of Ontario puzzles recently, purchased through our admin Brendon, you’ll see that some of the pieces that fit together are of LBJ’s. That’s slang for “Little Brown Jobs”, a category some birdwatchers find fitting for that potentially confusing group called sparrows. On the bird checklist for Middlesex County, there are at least thirteen sparrow species plus the addition of other passerines that look sparrow-like, but don’t have the word “sparrow” in their official name. Many of those species migrate south and we are left with about four sparrows to ID in the London area during winter months. This is a good time to learn their identity, so when spring comes, you are ready for an influx of new LBJ’s.

If you see a sparrow flitting about in a weedy field, some markings to look for right away are: Does the bird have bold, brown streaks down its breast and sides or is it plain? The most common winter sparrow showing streaking is Song Sparrow. It’s around all year round but can be very skulky and frustrating to get a good glimpse as it dives for cover. The coarse, brown streaks lump together in the centre of the breast. Get to know this bird well, because come spring there will be other flecked-fronted species to cause confusion.

The American Tree Sparrow has a plain front but shows a dark smudge dot in the centre of the breast. It sports a rusty cap and a russet line behind the eye, plus a bi-coloured bill. This differs from the similar summer Chipping Sparrows whose eyeline is black and no breast spot. A winter “Chippie” would be a rare sighting here. Tree Sparrows arrive from up north with the juncos in autumn and follow the same departure calendar in the spring. They sing musical twittery call notes to each other, which is lovely to hear. Komoka Provincial Park North is a good location to find these sparrows.

The White-crowned Sparrow is another plain-fronted species. To me, the adults look like birds wearing fancy, bold bicycle helmets with white and black racing stripes over their heads. It is a distinctive field mark, however the confusion may arise if you see an immature bird. Their “bicycle helmet” is a more muted two-toned tan colour. Both ages have soft, gray breast colouring and an orange/pink bill.

It’s always nice when a bird is named after its main field mark and the fourth sparrow you might encounter this winter is the White-throated Sparrow. It’s the one that sings “O Canada, Canada, Canada” in springtime. I still have two of these birds coming to the yard for fallen feeder seeds and they look a bit different from each other, so one is likely an adult and the other immature.

The white patch under the chin on the adult is bright and defined by a dark bib line. Like its cousin the White-crowned Sparrow, it too has wide white eyebrows, however there are yellow “headlights” at the front of the stripe above the eye. The immature bird is much more diffuse overall with beige eyebrows, a faint white throat and some indistinct streaking across the breast. Better camouflage for junior!

If you are new to sparrow ID, they can be as challenging as that 1000 piece bird jigsaw puzzle I’ve been working on...see if you can pick out the four species from the photos provided.

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