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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  • #18 in the Gallery is misidentified as a Tree Sparrow, instead of Tree Swallow.
    by Ron, Mon, 23 Apr 2018
  • yep i do the microwave too....they don't break down in our compost so the birds get them!
    by ecumam2, Wed, 18 Apr 2018
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    by Plntlady, Tue, 17 Apr 2018
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    by Plntlady, Tue, 17 Apr 2018
  • Thanks, now I can not worry so much. It's April 17, here in NE Vt. & is snowing big snowflakes. Yesterday we have scary, high winds & it's refusing to be spring. A phoebe, which was so puffed up I didn't recognize it, except for it's insectivore beak, showed up near the feeders, on my porch. It flew to a low branch, in a sugar maple & has been huddled there for quite a while. I was sure it was a phoebe when I observed it's tail bobbing, when first landing. I assume it is now being still, trying to reserve body heat. I have a frozen, cut pomegranate, hanging from the porch & we have an ample supply of sumac berries & other native fruiting plants, so hopefully it will find what it needs.... Also spotted a brown creeper, on the trunk of one of our big, old sugar maples, this morning.
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