Speaking of Nature: The American Tree Sparrow

The American tree sparrow is a faithful winter feeder bird as soon as it finally arrives from Canada.

The American tree sparrow is a faithful winter feeder bird as soon as it finally arrives from Canada. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON


Published: 11-12-2023 11:14 PM

As I write this column I am looking out my office window at a world that is enduring its first winter storm of the season. Back in October we saw the first flakes of snow, but that wasn’t really enough to describe as a storm. It was thrilling to see, but it was just a momentary blip on the winter radar and it left virtually no trace. Today is a little different.

During the night there was rain. The temperature dropped low enough to allow that rain to freeze and by morning I found that the feeders were covered with icicles and the deck was glazed in a thin layer of ice. Paved surfaces still retained enough heat to prevent them from icing up, but as I took the garbage up to the head of the driveway I noticed that every leaf on every tree had a frozen drop of water hanging from it. This was a particularly beautiful accent to add to the white pine trees, which had frozen raindrops at the tips of needles and pinecones alike.

When I went back into the house my glasses fogged up immediately and I was greeted with the tantalizing aromas of freshly brewed coffee and freshly backed cornbread. I grabbed myself some of everything and then headed over to the writing desk by my kitchen window; the inside equivalent of my Thinking Chair. There, I set about the enormously pleasant job of recording the arrival times of different birds. I also kept a running list of how many individuals of each species I observed so that I could file my sightings with eBird.

One by one I wrote down the names of all the “regulars.” Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, House Finch, Dark-eyed Junco, and on the list grew until I had a total of 16 species. This is the “standard” count for lists in early November, but there is definitely opportunity for the list to grow as the season progresses. This is because there are a couple of “regulars” that have not yet arrived, but they should do so any day now.

The bird most conspicuous in its current absence is the American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea). The reason for its absence is quite simple and in no way alarming at all. The American Tree Sparrow, like so many of our local migratory birds, has a breeding range that covers a thick band that crosses northern Canada, from Newfoundland on the Atlantic Coast all the way westward to British Columbia and then northward to the Arctic Circle. This range also includes almost all of the U.S. state of Alaska.

The breeding habitat of this species is described as, “Open areas with scattered trees and brush along tundra edge.” Getting up that far north takes a while, and coming back this far south will take a similar amount of time, but the birds aren’t in a terrible hurry because they aren’t headed for the Neotropics. The winter range of this species can be summarized as “the continental United States except for the southern portions of the southernmost states and the states of the Pacific Coast.”

The birds spend the summer months feeding insects to their young, but in winter they shift over to a diet that is almost entirely vegetarian and almost entirely based on seeds. I leave all of my goldenrod and joe-pye weed plants standing in the winter to offer the birds as much wild food as possible, but they will eagerly seek out smaller seeds (like the white millet found in many mixed seed blends) offered by humans. Thus, these are birds that will show up day after day if the food is waiting for them.

On the cabinet door of my office desk I have a list of arrival dates for the birds that I call the “winter regulars.” These are the White-throated Sparrow, the Dark-eyed Junco and the American Tree sparrow. Of these three species, it is the Tree Sparrows that are the last to arrive and many readers have already written to me to announce the arrivals of the other two species. Since 2009, the earliest recorded arrival date was Oct. 28, 2011. That also happens to be the only October arrival on the list.

There are 10 first-arrival dates for November and an additional three arrival dates in December; the latest of which was Dec. 12, 2022. The average arrival time is somewhere in the middle of November, which puts us squarely in the meaty part of the curve. These birds should arrive any day now, if they are not already here.

Identification of the American Tree Sparrow is going to be very easy and today’s photo shows you everything that you need to look for. The birds have a cinnamon-brown cap and a gray face that is divided by a thin black line sweeping back from the eye. This black line joins another patch of the cinnamon-brown toward the back of the head. The bird’s beak is black on the top and yellow on the bottom. But the most valuable field mark is that well-defined black spot in the middle of light-gray breast feathers that have no streaks, or stripes. If you see that spot, then you’ve identified the bird.

The weather has definitely shifted gears, but that doesn’t mean that birdwatching is over. Many people continue to go afield with binoculars to seek out the birds that decorate the landscape, but other people may prefer to set up an observation post at a convenient window and watch the hustle and bustle of winter feeders. Citizen scientists may even want to share their observations with Cornell University through the use of the eBird app. Winter can be a really exciting time for anyone who likes birds.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 26 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.