Feb 14, 2017 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, February 2017

American Tree Sparrows Under the Feeders

Notice the American tree sparrow's rufous crown and clear, gray breast with one central spot.
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I have to be honest and up front: I have never been good at identifying sparrows—even the ones that visit my yard—so I have not spent a lot of time studying them. I like the vibrant colors of the warblers, especially in the spring. When they stop by in my trees, they make their presence known with their songs. I am able to correctly identify many of them, mostly because of their distinctive plumage.

Sparrows can be tricky to identify, and it does not help that they are usually brown and like to hide in bushes or grasses. But when winter arrives in Ohio—and throughout much of the U.S.—so does the American tree sparrow. This little bird has a personality and look that cannot be mistaken for any other little brown bird once you become acquainted.

One snowy and cold winter day, before the year of the pine siskin invasion, I saw that I had a bunch of sparrows eating below a thistle feeder. At first glance, I thought they were house sparrows. Upon closer scrutiny, these guys were different. They resembled grown up chipping sparrows, but chippies had long since departed. Of course, after I looked them up, I discovered a new (to me) backyard species: the American tree sparrow.

The "winter chippy" is a common and widespread spring breeder across Arctic and Subarctic regions, nesting at the edge of the tundra. Like several other northern-breeding songbirds, these little sparrows head south in the fall and show up at feeders or in weedy areas with grasses, goldenrod, ironweed, and various other tall plants. Generally, they stay in small flocks and will remain in one area until it is time to head back north, or until they need to find more food than the area can provide.

Just a few months ago, these little visitors showed up again! Not only are they eating thistle that drops to the ground, but I have seen them on the suet feeders and mixed seed platforms. And, of course, they are all over the ground doing their frantic feeding dance, shuffling back and forth.

These sparrows have a pleasant trill, and they become even more vocal when it is time to head north in March or April. So, pay close attention to the little brown birds this winter, especially the ones on the ground below your feeders. You may find that you have a new species to add to your yard list, and I guarantee you will enjoy watching them.



About Cathy Priebe

Cathy Priebe is an avid backyard bird watcher and an active member of the Black River Audubon Society in Lorain County, Ohio. She also loves her cats, gardening and nature.


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  • I am excited to have my daughter’s tree this year, since my landlord has removed the lovely yew next to my patio, which was the only shelter for birds at my feeder.
    by pmalcpoet, Mon, 20 Dec 2021
  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021