Wednesday, June 26, 2019
Home Tech Nature Nut: The sex of sparrows is a black and white problem

Nature Nut: The sex of sparrows is a black and white problem

Three weeks ago I wrote about floods with unnatural house sparrows and house finches in my backyard feeders. Somehow word must have come out in the avifauna, for since then I have seen dozens of feeding native sparrow species searching for food in my garden.

White-throated sparrows are easily confused with the nonnative house sparrows, which are not found in the sparrow family. A good look on the head, however, shows the white spot on the sparrow's neck, along with a yellow spot and some white bars on the head, revealing his true identity.

During their autumn and spring hikes, there are a few days, sometimes a few weeks, when white-throated sparrows are the dominating birds you see in the woods and around feeding sites, especially when they are nearby. I can not even guess how many of these tiny birds will have to travel throughout the state during this time, but I think it would count millions.

Although they are often seen near feeding stations, these seemingly active sparrows seem to be feeding on the ground, scratching grass and soil, looking for seeds that have fallen from a fodder plant, or just finding seeds that are deposited there naturally. Some will venture onto platform feeders, the closer to the ground, the better, and I can not remember seeing any of them on my hanging sunflower seed. Birdwatchers who want to encourage these birds will spread some of the seeds on the ground to encourage them to stay and eat.

Over the years, especially at Quarry Hill, I've probably caught hundreds, perhaps a few thousand white-throated sparrows, more often in the nets we set up near feeders than the traps we placed directly on the feeding troughs , If they were in full migration, we would say that it was a "wave" of white-throats that moved.

I remember significant color variations in the white throats that I would catch, often due to the age or sex of the bird, though my banding bible did not make me call a brilliantly colored white neck, with a bright yellow spot on each eye, more mature Man.

Instead, I would have to carefully measure each bird's wing chord to try to determine its gender, as researchers had concluded that men were slightly larger than women. This is opposite to the saw-owls I catch, or indeed, in most birds of prey, where the females are larger.

To measure the white larynx wing chord and hold it with one hand, I would use my thumb and forefinger cautiously to spread the wing far enough to expose the wing tips and the bend of the wing. With my other hand I placed a small metric ruler under the wing and noted the length of the wing chord. If it measured 67 millimeters or less, I could be pretty sure it was a woman and 72 or more a man. In between, I would have to set a U for unknown.

While white-throated sparrows are quite common during these spring and autumn migrations, a similar-looking sparrow, the white-headed sparrow, is not common. The white-crowned has more pronounced and lighter white stripes on its head, with only a dull white spot on its neck.

I suppose that in a good year I could see half a dozen white-headed sparrows compared to tens or hundreds of white-throats. We are on the edge of the White-crowned Sparrow, right in the middle of the White-whiskers' migration route, nesting mainly in Canada and winter in the southern United States and beyond.

The dominant call of the white-throated sparrow, which I usually hear in the spring, for me at least sounds like the call of the tit with three high notes, but then there are three more three note sequences to follow. People who like to sound words to birds use "O-oh Darling Canada, Canada, Canada" for the head call of the white throat.

I hope some of you have seen these little white-throated sparrows that will soon disappear to move to better areas further south. If not, look for them next spring.

Greg Munson is a volunteer naturalist and freelance writer. If you have questions, comments or ideas, contact Munson at



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