Winter season good time to study ‘little brown birds’

10:02 am | February 20, 2012

Elizabethton resident Rob Biller, who is also a fellow member of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, weighed in on the topic of abundant robins in the area this winter.

Photo by Bryan Stevens - An adult White-crowned Sparrow perched and surveying its surroundings.

Rob posted a comment to the newspaper’s website regarding last week’s column.

“Robins may indeed be seen farther north this year for the reasons you mentioned, but after recently returning from central Florida, I can safely say they are doing well down south,” he noted. “I saw more American Robins at one time last week than I ever have in my life.”

Photo by Kenneth Thomas - The Song Sparrow is probably one of the most widespread members of the sparrow family. These excellent songsters are at home in both rural areas and the suburbs.

Rob said that while standing on a dock at Lake Yale, he observed a massive flock of robins fly over late in the day as they were heading to a roost. He estimated about 1,500 robins every five minutes were flying over for a period of 20 to 30 minutes.

“I felt I was getting a small glimpse of what the hawk counters see in South Texas when the Broad-wing migration converges past Hazel Bazemore Park in Corpus Cristi,” Rob noted in his post. “That was especially evident when, instead of a continual channel of birds, they flooded out across the sky for a short time.”

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - The Fox Sparrow is a large, rusty-red sparrow that occasionally visits area feeders during the winter months.

He made a good point about the abundance of American Robins.

“If we do have more northern robins this winter, and I suspect that your are right in thinking so, it goes to show how strong the robin populations are,” he noted. “In these increasingly depressing days where certain species keep declining, it’s nice to be able to talk about one that still seems strong and healthy.”

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - The Chipping Sparrow is quite a distinctive bird during its spring and summer nesting season.


Mid-February is probably early enough to dare hope that winter’s losing its grip. Of course, the recent cold snap after a relatively mild December and January convinces me that we may still have some more winter weather to endure.

The composition of the birds in the fields and woodlands around my home remains basically unchanged. The colorful neotropical migrants — the hummingbirds, the warblers, the tanagers, the orioles — are still a couple of months from staging their spring return.

There are still colorful birds to enjoy — male Northern Cardinals look even more stunning against the bleak backdrop of winter terrain. A flock of Blue Jays can also look quite dramatic against the grayness of the winter season.

But, for the most part, many of the winter birds, especially those making regular visits to my feeders, wear drab winter plumage. The American Goldfinches, for instance, bear not even a faint resemblance to their bold gold and black summer appearance.

And then there are the “little brown birds,” otherwise known as sparrows. Such winter season visitors as Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows are members of the sparrow family. In North America, the sparrows are classified in the Emberizidae family, which also includes the buntings, cardinals, grosbeaks and tanagers.

American sparrows are, quite accurately, described as “little brown birds” of somewhat subdued plumage. However, as you begin to study our native sparrows, you can learn to distinguish most of the more common sparrows.

Worldwide, there are many superstitions connected with birds commonly known as “sparrows.”

In the book, “The Folklore of Birds,” author Laura C. Martin notes that in China the sparrow is a foreteller of good luck. She also points out that in Japan the sparrow is a symbol for gentleness, gratitude and joy.

Keep in mind, however, that sparrows in Japan and China are not the same birds found in the United States. In fact, with a few exceptions, our native sparrows are unique to North America.

The Song Sparrow is widespread in North America, but it also has many different geographic races, ranging from a jumbo-sized bird in the Aleutian Islands off the Alaskan coast to pale birds of desert regions to the typical Song Sparrow found in many backyards across the nation.

The Song Sparrow can be found at any time of the year in East Tennessee, most often in backyards that offer some dense cover and perhaps a feeder stocked with seeds.

Other sparrows will often spend the winter months making a living supplemented by fare offered at backyard feeders. Some of the more common winter sparrows include White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco and White-crowned Sparrow. Other sparrows, including Field Sparrow, Fox Sparrow and Chipping Sparrow, will also visit feeders.

Other sparrows are less frequent visitors to yards, and can most often be found during the migration season. Such sparrows include Savannah Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow and Swamp Sparrow.

One of the most easily recognized sparrows is the White-crowned Sparrow. The White-crowned Sparrow is quite vividly marked for a sparrow, and there’s little chance of confusing this large sparrow with any of its more dull-plumaged kin. An adult White-crowned Sparrow has a bold white and black crown pattern. Its upperparts are brown with a grayish-white breast and two white wing bars. At seven inches in length, this is one of our larger sparrows. The White-crowned Sparrow also possesses a pinkish bill. All these traits help this sparrow stand out from the crown. Immature White-crowned Sparrows are similar to adults in every respect except their crown pattern consists of brown and beige stripes instead of black and white.

On the other hand, the Chipping Sparrow, which wears a distinctive plumage in the breeding season, can be difficult to identify in the fall as these sparrows molt into their more subdued winter plumage. With many birds sporting only a partial transition into winter attire, individual Chipping Sparrows can show a great deal of variation during the fall. Chipping Sparrows, or chippies, tend to travel in large flocks more so than some other common sparrows.

The House Sparrow, that little brown bird that frequents parking lots in the city as well as cattle lots in the country, is not a native bird. Technically, the House Sparrow is not even a sparrow — it’s a weaver finch. Like the European Starling, the House Sparrow was introduced to North America and quickly adapted, sometimes to the disadvantage of some of our native birds.

So, when the winter season brings some of these “little brown birds” to your feeders, grab a birding field guide and take time to study the subtle details. With the birds at close range at your feeders, it will be much easier to detect some of the distinctive field marks that assist birders in distinguishing the sparrows.


If you have a comment or question, give me a call at 297-9077 or send an e-mail to I’m also on Facebook.

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