While sparrows can be troublesome as a group, most experienced birders find their way out of the confusion with adequate field experience. Kenn Kaufman makes a salient point when he suggests that it’s not really a problem of confusing species – like you might find in the gulls or small flycatchers. In general, most sparrows don’t actually look like each other. The problem for birders is when they become daunted by the group as a whole – 30-something species of small brown birds.
Kaufman’s overall point is that experienced birders know what most sparrows are at the species level before they get a good look at the field marks. How? They do it by behavior and habitat grouping. In fact, it’s probably fair to say most really experienced birders know what sparrows to expect in most habitats. Sparrows have a remarkable sense of site-fidelity.
On a typical Dallas Christmas Count, in one of the dry, open beds at the fish hatchery, a dark sparrow hops up off the ground and lands in a sapling about 4-feet off the ground. As the observer, my only immediate indicators are that the bird is generally dark, sparrow-like, and fairly large… but not the size of a towhee.
At this point, I’m not wrestling with trying to identify one of 30-something species. I may be thinking of only 4-5 possibilities and I largely expect it to be a Song Sparrow. I may even be going backwards in my thinking…. why isn't that bird a Song Sparrow? That’s the most likely candidate. Don’t birders then have to remember all the habitats? Yes, but this road map is actually much less difficult. When a birder starts grouping sparrows by habitat and behavior, the path to identification is much shorter.
Let’s now take a behavioral grouping rather than a habitat grouping. I’m walking through the White Rock Lake fish hatchery and I see a small group of sparrow-like birds, maybe 5-6 birds, rummaging through the foliage about 4 feet off the ground. I put my binoculars up to my eyes not just to identify the birds in question, but to see if there are any other sparrow species in this small feeding group of probable White-throated Sparrows. Because even though I’m not 100% positive that’s what they are, I’m about 99% sure they are White-throated Sparrows ….even if I’m not looking directly at them. Group behavior is a trait that I’m used to seeing from White-throated Sparrows in that habitat.
Most wintering sparrows don’t travel in small, tightly organized feeding groups. The ones that come to mind are White-throated Sparrows, Harris’s Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, and Chipping Sparrows. I usually can eliminate juncos pretty quickly either by sound or their more cooperative nature in showing themselves in the open. So I’m left with four species. Two of those species – Chipping and White-crowned sparrows – like more open habitat, not dense tracks of second growth and wooded brush that I find in the fish hatchery. Plus Chipping Sparrows don’t generally move through the shrubbery at eye level as a habit. Harris’s Sparrow is a remote possibility inside the fish hatchery, but it too prefers a little more open habitat even if it’s not quite as open as the other two species I’ve eliminated.
Let me detour for a moment to discuss what constitutes a feeding group. A feeding group can be a tight, organized group that moves in unison all day long, or it can be a very loose group that dissipates after a few minutes. Sometimes it’s not obvious. For example, many birds of one species can be found in the same habitat, but that doesn't mean they’re a feeding group. In an open pasture, I can frequently see many Savannah Sparrows while walking the field, but they are generally lone individuals when it comes to feeding. On the other hand, they may escape danger as a group. There’s lots of variation. The White-throated Sparrows I discuss above move and behave as a very tight, coherent group most of the day. They flush from danger as a group, they move as a group, and they feed as a group. They are usually in contact with each other at all times. It doesn't mean you won’t occasionally see them independently, but you do see them in small groups more often than not.
Later on, we will discuss mixed feeding flocks, but for the moment we will stick to sparrows. My point here is that I am able to narrow the identity of a feeding group quickly without necessarily knowing the species. Then I am able to eliminate most of those other area sparrows that socially group together simply by knowing the habitat. I always check to make sure I’m right (usually one or two call notes are all I need for an ID), but verification is usually very quick. The fish hatchery is full of White-throated Sparrows in winter, and if I was in that same habitat anywhere else in eastern north-central Texas, I would also expect to find White-throated Sparrows doing exactly the same thing.
In the case of passerines especially, don’t rush to identify the species without taking into account where you are and where they are. For example, is the bird in question staying low in the grasses in open marshy habitat with standing water? How many sparrow species are in that habitat in North-central Texas? Swamp Sparrow and Song Sparrow come to mind immediately, but Chipping Sparrow? Absolutely not.
Let’s discuss some of the more often seen sparrows in North-central Texas. At present, we will do this only by habitat, current status in the area, and general distribution in North-central Texas. We may touch on one or two ID characteristics.
1. Rufous-crowned Sparrow – This is not a bird of eastern North-central Texas and is usually only found in a longitude in Tarrant County and west – mostly along the Brazos River drainage (Pulich). RCSPs are seen throughout the year, but are more commonly observed in winter. It is almost always found along rocky outcrops. It is more frequently seen in hilly areas with exposed rock, but it can be seen at low elevation in dry rocky ravines. I’ve even seen them on old, broken concrete dams along rural streambeds. It is generally solitary in behavior and not terribly difficult to identify with an adequate look. Usually seen very low and frequently on the rocks themselves. RCSP has a conspicuous eye-ring, dark malar stripe, and clear breast.
2. Cassin’s Sparrow – Generally a spring and summer bird. Like lark Sparrow, one of the few nesting sparrows in the study area. Not generally a bird seen in the eastern part of North-central Texas except during times of drought. More common and more widely distributed than the species above. CASP is fairly common-to-uncommon in appropriate habitat. It frequents dry, scrub habitat and overgrown pastureland with few, if any trees. From a distance, CASP is more noteworthy for its plain look and lack of identifying charateristics than any strong field mark.
3. Chipping Sparrow – Seen fairly commonly in a variety of open, short grass or bare ground habitats. Most often seen during migration, but sometimes observed in small groups during winter. Normally feeds on the ground and flushes to a nearby tree or bush to escape danger. This is one of the few sparrows that can be confused with other sparrows in winter – particularly the closely related Clay-colored Sparrow, or perhaps less likely, an immature White-crowned Sparrow. CHSP is a clear-breasted sparrow with rusty striping on head that becomes almost a rusty cap in spring.
4. Tree Sparrow – Irregular in winter. I have seen this bird once in NCTX, and only in Grayson Co. TRSP is uncommon in the Texas Panhandle but seen regularly there. Some winters it may show up in several counties in the NCTX area, but more often the bird is not seen in the area for several years in a row. Prefers native shrubbery, saplings, and fence rows. A clear-breasted bird with a breast spot and a rusty cap and eye stripe. One of the few sparrows with conspicuous white wing bars.
5. Clay-colored Sparrow – Very similar to the Chipping Sparrow in look and behavior although perhaps not as invested in ground feeding as the Chipping Sparrow. Also, CCSPs may be seen singly or in very small groups, but it is not quite as group-oriented as the Chipping Sparrow. This species in not normally seen in winter, but it is found regularly in migration in scrubby habitat. In spring migration, when it is most common, you can sometimes hear their very buzzy song long before you see them. CCSP has a clear breast and a wide, gray neck collar on back of neck.
6. Field Sparrow – a slight and narrow-looking sparrow frequently seen along hedgerows, woody fences, overgrown fields, and in areas where grassy scrub habitat butts up against secondary growth. Usually stays between a few inches and a few feet off the ground. Generally FISP is a wintering sparrow, but some birds nest in NCTX. Easily identified once you can get glass on its diagnostic eye-ring, pinkish beak, and orange and gray head pattern.
7. Vesper Sparrow – More commonly observed in drier western half of NCTX, but birds can be seen on the eastern side of North-central Texas as well. I have seen Vesper Sparrow as a solitary bird in winter, but it is frequently seen with other sparrows and even flock on its own during migration (Pulich). It stays low and prefers dry scrub, hedgerows, and untended fields. Small chestnut patch on shoulders and eye-ring make it a fairly easy ID.
8. Lark Sparrow – Very uncommon in the winter months, but LASP is the most conspicuous nesting sparrow in NCTX and is common in summer. Lark Sparrows like short grass or bare, open areas with small trees or saplings. Not particularly fond of dense, heavy undergrowth or tall grasses. The almost harlequin head pattern is unique and this species is easy to ID because of it. Fairly easy to see in summer in rural farmland.
9. Black-throated Sparrow – BTSPs are rare in the western part of North-central Texas and non-existent in the eastern part of the study area. Prefers dry scrub habitat with some cacti, and that habitat generally occurs only in the western and southwest part of the area. Fairly easy to identify with the large, black throat.
10. Lark Bunting – Fairly common in the western part of the North-central Texas in winter. Rare in the east. This species generally travels in small flocks, usually 10-20 birds. It also has a significantly different alternate plumage which makes it highly variable in its spring and fall molts. Basic molt is very streaked with a light brown coloration throughout. Summer plumage is pure black with a wide, white wing patch running from the coverts to the wing primaries.
11. Savannah Sparrow – Common wintering sparrow in the right habitat, especially in the eastern half of the study area. Prefers grassy fields and pastures. Also common along hedgerows and fences bordering pastures. This bird is heavily streaked on the breast and flanks. Some birds have a significant yellow spot around the eye lore, but this is highly variable. Spot on the breast is also variable. All birds have white outer tail feathers which are sometimes noticeable as the bird flies.
12. Grasshopper Sparrow – Fairly common in migration and less common as a summer resident. Rare in winter. As a nester, it prefers grasslands and untended pastureland. GRSP is generally a clear-breasted sparrow with an orange-brown wash on the upper breast. A rather flat head coupled with an eye ring sets the face apart from other sparrows.
13. Henslow’s Sparrow – Casual to extremely rare wintering sparrow sometimes found in the southeast part of NCTX. Never predictable. Prefers hedgerows, grassy fields, and broken pastureland. Easily distinguished by strong greenish head pattern, streaked upper breast, and eye ring. Personally, I have only seen this bird twice in my life, both times in east Texas. Even Pulich mentions that he never saw the bird in Texas.
14. LeConte’s Sparrow – Uncommon wintering sparrow found in moist, untended grassland. When flushed, LESP generally only files a short distance before landing back in the grasses – quite unlike Savannah Sparrows which may share the same habitat. A short, round sparrow that is generally clear-breasted with some streaking on the flanks. The buffy coloration on breast and face appears to be almost orange. Face also set off by gray patch behind the eye.
15. Fox Sparrow – Fairly common wintering sparrow. Unlike many of our other sparrows, it is frequently found in second growth forests or small, wooded areas. Usually seen between 3-12 feet high but does occasionally feed on the ground. A very rusty head and face is the same color as the breast streaks and flank color. Streaking on breast looks more like small chevrons when one is close. Rusty head set off by dark gray around crown and nape. Breast spot is more like blotch of rust.
16. Song Sparrow – Common wintering bird. Usually found in wet, grassy fields or along streams. Also seen in marsh habitat. Pops up to “pishing” and very cooperative as a rule. SOSPs are generally a chocolate brown with heavy streaks on the breast. SOSPs have some rufous on the wing, and a heavy eye-stripe behind the eye. Most SOSPs have a conspicuous breast spot. Makes a “chink” call that’s easy to familiarize yourself with. Overall, a slightly larger sparrow than most of the regular grassland sparrows.
17. Lincoln’s Sparrow – Fairly common wintering bird and very common in migration. Seen in a variety of open, brushy habitats. Frequently seen with other sparrows in winter. LISP has a streaked upper breast but always with a buffy color as part of the breast background (unlike Song Sparrow which has dark streaks on a white background). The buffy color also reaches into the malar area of the face and even along the flanks. Breast spot is variable and not seen on every bird. Gray around the neck and wings can show some rusty color.
18. Swamp Sparrow – Fairly common wintering sparrow but generally observed only in wet marsh habitat. SWSP has a clear grayish-colored breast but frequently shows a breast spot (along with Tree Sparrow, one of the few sparrows to show a breast spot on a clear breast). Rusty crown stripe and dark eye-line. SWSP also has some noticeable rust color on wings. Stays low in the marsh, but will occasionally pop out onto grasses and shrubs.
19. White-throated Sparrow – Very common wintering sparrow. White-throated Sparrows are more common in a north-south line from Tarrant County through the eastern half of the study area. Usually seen in small groups foraging through shrubs or second growth understory. Bright white throat and whitish crown stripes. Slightly dingier coloration on females and younger males. Most birds have a light gray breast and show some yellowish eye lores.
20. Harris’s Sparrow – Fairly common winter sparrow. Usually seen in small groups much like White-throated Sparrow. Found in brushy areas usually around dead wood, small trees or saplings. May also be seen in understory along the border of second growth woodlands. HASP is one of the largest wintering sparrows. Usually seen about eye level. Most birds have blackish crowns and throats with buffy cheeks. Immature HASPs can have patterns of various degrees of black around throat. Most birds show some streaking along the flanks.
21. White-crowned Sparrow – Another fairly large wintering sparrow, more common in the western part of North-central Texas from about central Dallas County to the western edge of the study area. Frequently seen in groups on ground, along fence rows, or in dry grassy scrub habitat. Adults have bright white and black crown stripes with gray throat and matching breast. Immature birds have rusty crown and eye line going behind the eye. Also clear, buffy-gray breast.
22. Other sparrows with only a few records in the study area include Brewer’s Sparrow, Sage Sparrow, Bachman’s Sparrow, Baird’s Sparrow, and Golden-crowned Sparrow. Both Sage Sparrow and Brewer’s Sparrow were recorded last year (2011).
It will be interesting to see how many of these 20-odd species of North-central Texas sparrows we will see in the course of the MB program.