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 have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018