Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Arrival of Beautiful Sparrows

The first thing I heard this morning (before my bird-ringtone/alarm kicked in), was a song of sweet musical notes coming from just outside my window. The tones of the song were very melodious, easy-on-the-ear, and cute in their own way. The notes in the song weren't steady and monotone, but were rather undulating in pitch; as if trying to sing a series of soft, high-and-low pitched whistles one after another. It's a song that I haven't heard since last year, and instantly brought a smile to my face...

The bird's song that woke me up this morning was a Fox Sparrow. They are a large and fluffy sparrow, with gorgeous streaks of rufous lining the outer edges of their belly and chest; with the streaks becoming smaller chevrons of bright rufous color as the markings approach the snow-white belly. Their throat is marked in rufous streaks, and they have an elaborate head of a soft gray color, with streaks of reds creates a beautifully distinct facial mask.... almost giving them an appearance of having red mutton chops! They have a bi-colored bill, which means that the bill is made up of two colors... the upper mandible (upper section) is dark gray, and the lower mandible (lower section) is yellow. They also have a relatively large bill for a sparrow, which is useful in providing leverage when it comes to cracking the hulls of some of the slightly larger seeds that this sparrow craves. Some birds, like American Goldfinches, have very petite bills, and frequent seed varieties that are smaller in size; which tend to have a more brittle and thinner outer layer.

For a sparrow, Fox Sparrows are quite long-legged, which gives them leverage for scratching-up seeds within the ground (or right now, the snow). Different sparrows forage for seeds using different techniques; some sparrows, like the Song Sparrow and American Tree Sparrows, typically feed by bouncing around from place-to-place, keeping close watch on the ground as they scan for seeds. Once they find some seeds, they'll crack the outer shell, swallow the inner seed whole, then move on to a new area... letting their grit-filled crops do the "food processing" for digestion. Other sparrows, like the energetic Fox Sparrow, feed by jumping in place, and scratching vertically downward on the ground, in hopes to uncover seeds that may have been covered by light layers of snow, leaf litter, etc (as seen in the video below)! All videos in this blog were digiscoped (recorded through a spotting scope). The little point-and-shoot camera is hand-held as steadily as I can hold it, behind the eyepiece- looking through the scope for a more zoomed-in image. Enjoy!

There are four varieties (or forms) of Fox Sparrow. The variety we see hear in the midwest and to the east coast is the Red form; also known as the Eastern form. The other varieties consist of the Slate-colored, Large-billed and Sooty form, all of which are found out west. The red form we see in the Midwest breeds throughout northern Canada, and overwinters in the southeast portion of the lower 48 states. If you're in the northern Midwest, you can see them visiting feeders for short durations during spring and fall migration.

Another sparrow species which arrived in good time with the Fox Sparrows, was the American Tree Sparrow. Unlike the large Fox Sparrow, tree sparrows are quite petite little birds. They have a very small bill, which is bi-colored in the same fashion as the Fox Sparrow (black on top, yellow below). They are a gorgeous little sparrow, with two flashy white wingbars, and flanks (sides of the body, just below the underwing) of warm tan colors. They have a gray head with a thin red streak going throughout their eye (called an eye-stripe). American Tree Sparrows have a single rufous stripe going from the top to the front of the head (known as a crown). They have a unique marking on their chest, which is a little spot dark gray. Several other sparrows around here have a concentration of streaks in the core of the breast area creating a spot, however the American Tree Sparrow is the sparrow that sports a dark spot that is surrounded by a streakless frontside (as an adult). American Tree Sparrows also have a small white ring that goes around each of their little dark eyes. This facial field mark, also found in Fox Sparrows and a variety of other birds, is called an eye ring.

The American Tree Sparrow breeds throughout the northernmost forests of Canada, and into Alaska. This species is found in the lower 48 states during fall migrating, throughout the harsh winter months, and can be seen heading north during spring migration as they head northward. They are a hardy, gorgeous and fluffy little bird!

Up until today, I had not seen Fox Sparrows or Tree Sparrows here in Duluth, MN. Hopefully these birds will be strong, and be able to withstand the elements as they make their way northward. We're currently going through a very blustery and harsh winter-like spring storm! These photos and videos in this blog entry were enjoyed under my birdfeeders this morning.

Here is a video of a Fox Sparrow eating a sunflower seed, and singing all at the same time!

Here is a video of a Fox Sparrow. As it eats the seeds, listen closely... you can hear the Song Sparrow singing (a slightly less musical-sounding, quicker-paced song), and other nearby Fox Sparrows singing (the more yodeling, flute-like song).

And a video of an American Tree Sparrow - such a cute little fluffball! A Fox Sparrow can be heard singing in the background.

I have been having such an incredible time counting raptors over the past month here in Duluth, and hope to provide some belated, yet interesting tidbits about the fun sightings I've witnessed... of course, including some pictures too!

Thank you for reading my blog, and good birdwatching,


  1. Great pictures and videos, the sounds are wonderful, and the information is very well doone. This is a really fine blog entry.