Attracting, feeding, and identification tips!
Excerpted from the new book Feeding and Identifying Backyard Birds by Bill Thompson, III
Feeding sparrows is as easy as tossing a few handfuls of mixed seed on the ground, or under the bushes, or along the edge of the patio. Nearly all of our sparrow species prefer to feed on or near to the ground, so, other than a low platform feeder, it's unlikely that you'll find them taking food out of a traditional bird feeder.
In actuality you're much more likely to attract sparrows to your yard with good habitat. They prefer weedy edges, brambly hedgerows, vine tangles, and woodland edge. Even the foundation plantings of evergreen shrubs so common around office buildings and suburban homes are decent sparrow habitat. Once you've attracted them with habitat, your feeder offerings can bring them into better view.
The Joys of Feeding Sparrows
What is special about feeding sparrows is their subtle plumage and variety. Here on our farm in late fall and early winter, we often have the following species at our feeders all at once: song, chipping, field, white-throated, white-crowned, Lincoln's, and fox sparrows. Add in the eastern towhees and dark-eyed juncos, two members of the sparrow family and you've got quite a nice mix of birds. Throughout the year we also get short visits from migrant swamp, Savannah, and we enjoy the winter company of a small flock of tree sparrows.
I dream of the day a Harris' sparrow will show up at our feeding station. Birders in the central part of the United States, from Nebraska south to Texas are the lucky hosts of this boldly marked sparrow. Along the Pacific coast, another one of the "crowned" sparrowsthe golden-crowned sparrowvisits feeders, scratching the ground for bits of seed.
Sparrows eat a variety of foods from insects (available in season) to seeds, tree buds, fruits, and berries. Their somewhat conical bills show their close taxonomic relationship to the finches, but most sparrow bills lack the heavy seed-crushing ability that the finches possess. Their typical foraging style of scratching and sifting through leaves and duff to uncover food is taken to the extreme by the towhees and the fox sparrow. These larger sparrows sometimes get so enthusiastic in their scratching that it sounds like an animal walking across the dead leaves. Numerous times I have followed that sound through the woods, expecting to see an animal or perhaps a turkey, only to find a pair of eastern towhees intent on exposing things to eat below the fallen leaves.
The sparrows at your feeder will change with the seasons. This provides a backyard bird watcher with the chance to add to the yard list of bird species, but also to work on the subtleties of sparrow identification.
Sparrow identification can be tricky. Some of us simply give up with a shrug, calling any small, hard-to-ID sparrow an LBJ (for Little Brown Job).
As with any confusing bird, the best way to a correct identification is to be patient and methodical in your looking. First of all, make sure you are looking at a sparrow. Many non-birders call any brown bird a sparrow. Our common sparrows species all have short, conical bills, round heads, and fairly long tails. Start at the top of the sparrow's head and work your way down and back. Most birds in North America can be identified by the field marks that exist from the birds' shoulders, up. Check for obvious patterns on the head and face; then move to the throat. Then look at the back of the neck, the shoulders, and the wings. Note the two or three most obvious field marks.
To make the most of your sparrow identification skills, look at the Parts of a Bird diagram in the front of your favorite field guide. It will help you learn the names and locations of some useful bird partsmany of which contain key field marks for our sparrows. Look at the various terms for the head: crown, forehead, malar, supercilium, eye-ring, eyeline. These come in very handy in sparrow identification, along with some of the wing-related terms: shoulder, wing bars, scapulars, primaries, secondaries. It may sound daunting to learn these terms, but once you remember just a few of them, you'll be better prepared to note the important field marks on the sparrows at your feeder and in your yard.