Winter Sparrows

All through the winter months, even on the wettest and dullest days, there are always birds in the shrubs and hedges of our neighbourhood. Sparrows are some of the most common winter birds, but I’m always glad to see them. They aren’t particularly flashy or colourful, but they have a subtle beauty, and like good friends they just get better as you get to know them.

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodica)
A medium sized sparrow, the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodica) has brown and gray stripes on its head and a breast streaked with brown.

If you see a brownish-gray bird flitting through the shrubbery that isn’t too tiny, then it would be reasonable to assume that it is a song sparrow, since it is the most common sparrow in these parts. The song sparrow (Melospiza melodica), is a medium sized, somewhat bulky bird with a short bill and rounded head. The head is striped with tones of brown and slate-gray, and the sides and breast are streaked with brown. The colouration of the song sparrow varies greatly from region to region, and 24 different subspecies have been described. Coastal song sparrows are generally darker and streakier than their southern and eastern relatives. The song sparrow, as the name suggests, has a wonderfully distinctive song. It starts with several well-spaced notes followed by a buzzy trill. It’s a loud, clear, attention-getting sort of song, described by one source as a “stuttering, clattering song.” This description doesn’t really do it justice; it’s actually very nice to listen to!

One of my personal favourites is the fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca). This handsome sparrow is a rich chocolate brown colour, and sometimes has hints of reddish-rustiness on the wings and tail. The breast is heavily marked with triangular spots of brown that look like they were dabbed on with a paintbrush. Like the song sparrow, the coastal form is darker, and is known as the “sooty” fox sparrow. Fox sparrows often pop up alongside song sparrows, but with a bit of practice it is quite easy to tell who’s who. Like other sparrows, fox sparrows frequent winter feeders. They are often seen “double scratching” beneath the feeder, kicking back ground litter with both feet to unearth bits of food.

Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)
A rich chocolate brown in colour, the Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) has a two toned yellow and gray bill.

The call of the fox sparrow has “out foxed” me many times. Just recently, on a bird count in December, I spent about ten minutes next to a thicket listening to a loud call note that sounded odd. Finally, a fox sparrow flew up, and I was momentarily annoyed that the “odd sound” was just a common old fox sparrow! I recall another incident, at the Port Hardy ferry terminal, when I heard a clear, but exotic sounding call that completely mystified me. I tracked the call for some time around the terminal trying to figure out what it was. And low and behold, it was just another fox sparrow! The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the call as a “series of clear musical notes and sliding whistles.” Most breeding records of fox sparrows on Vancouver Island are from the west coast, North Island, and mountainous regions. For this reason, the full song of the fox sparrow is seldom heard in our area.

Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)
The Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla) has a plaintive call that sounds like “Oh … Dear … Me.”

Another common winter sparrow is the golden-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla). Golden-crowns are one of our largest sparrows. The most distinctive feature is the golden-yellow patch on the bird’s forehead, bordered by black. The face and breast is dull gray, but the back of the bird is brown with black stripes. Immature birds are quite confusing, since the yellow crown isn’t very apparent (immatures can be confused with white-crowned sparrows, so it is best to compare). Golden-crowns are also much duller in the winter months, and the amount of black on the head may vary. The bill is two toned, being darker above and paler below. The call of the golden-crowned is one of the easiest to recognize. In the spring, listen for the three plaintive whistled notes “Oh…dear…me.”

The song sparrow, fox sparrow and golden-crowned sparrow are some of the most common winter birds in my neighbourhood, but there are several others to be on the look out for, including the white-crowned sparrow and (in more urban areas) the house sparrow. There are also several migratory sparrows that turn up in the spring, such as the savannah sparrow and Lincoln’s sparrow.

Through the winter, I always enjoy spotting familiar sparrows in the bushes and hedges around my home. And with spring just around the corner, I look forward to hearing all of their lovely songs again soon.