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Grassland Birding and Winter Sparrow Identification Workshop


2018/03/06


By Nancy Brannon, Ph.D., Naturalist

Lest you think that all sparrows are nondescript and as common as roadside trash, the sparrow identification workshop at Strawberry Plains Audubon Center (SPAC) certainly dispelled those common misconceptions! The workshop was held on a rainy Saturday, February 17, 2018 at the Center, just north of Holly Springs, Mississippi.

The morning’s presentation from Delta Wind Birds guest speaker J.R. Rigby, from Oxford, Miss., featured ten kinds of sparrows, from the common white-throated sparrow to the rarer, and “most beautiful bird,” the speaker characterized, Le Conte’s Sparrow. There were descriptions of their habitat, or where they like to hang out; detailed descriptions to differentiate one sparrow from another; and examples of their calls and songs with audible excerpts from xeno-canto.org.

The ten sparrows described were: song sparrow, swamp sparrow, savannah sparrow, field sparrow, chipping sparrow, white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, fox sparrow, vesper sparrow, and Le Conte’s sparrow.

Plans were to follow the presentation with a short hike around the restored grasslands of SPAC, an excellent sparrowing location, where attendees could put their newly acquired knowledge into action to spot sparrows (and other birds). There are over seven sparrow species, including the beautiful and elusive LeConte’s Sparrow, that are regular inhabitants of this site. There are several other bird species wintering in these grassland habitats to appreciate, too.

There was a short break in the rain that attendees could utilize for the outing, but the rains returned during the hike, which made observing bird activity very limited. Still, several species of sparrows were sighted, in addition to several viewings of beautiful towhees.

For lunch, Mitch Robinson made delicious corn chowder that just hit the spot on a chilly, rainy day! He said it’s a recipe from a restaurant where he worked during college at Sewanee – Shenanigans.

Why care about sparrows? Sparrows play an important role in preserving the ecosystem in which they live. Sparrows mostly prefer seeds of millet, grass, thistle, and sunflower seed. They also eat fruits and berries, and during the process, spread seeds to places away from the fruit tree, which is important for germination of the seeds. By spreading seeds, sparrows help the survival of many plants that are the producers in an ecosystem.

Sparrows also feed on small insects and worms such as caterpillars, beetles and aphids, some of which destroy certain plants. Sparrows keep their population in check; otherwise, the insects would eat certain plant species to extinction.

It’s all about paying closer attention to your surroundings. When you walk through the pasture and see a bunch on small brown birds fly up from the grass into a nearby thicket or hedgerow, it’s likely sparrows. Which ones? That’s up to you to identify, but I often find white crowned sparrows.

Varied grasslands are the best habitat in which to find sparrows – grasses with some nearby woody shrubs, and maybe some wetter areas. You may find white throated sparrows at the forest edge and in early growth forest, but mature forests are not good sparrow habitat. Suburban areas can be good habitat for sparrows because they offer grassy open areas, a variety of sizes/ages of trees, ditches, and some feeders, but it’s not ideal habitat. However, you may find chipping sparrows, song sparrows, fox sparrows, white throated, and field sparrows.

Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to get acquainted with the many varieties of sparrows – what they look like, what their song sounds like. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/search/?q=sparrowThere is an informative section called Bird ID Skills. You can learn on “How to tell an American Tree Sparrow from a Chipping Sparrow” and “Identifying Some Common Sparrows.”

Position your bird feeders around your yard so that you can view them easily from windows. Of course, feeders attract a lot of cardinals, but they also attract black capped chickadees, the tufted titmouse, rufous-sided towhees, finches, and sparrows are often on the ground cleaning up the spillage. With a bird bath nearby, it’s a delight to watch the variety of birds feed, get a drink, and take a bath. And don’t forget to take a close look for birds scratching around in the leaf litter; you will probably see a brown thrasher. So get yourself a pair of binoculars and enjoy the view!

Find more information about sparrows at: The Great Backyard Bird Count: http://gbbc.birdcount.org/learn_about_birds/identifying-some-common-sparrows/

For bird voices, visit xeno-canto.org, which contains bird sounds from all over the world.
 

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