If you’ve ever seen a little brown bird hopping on the ground or in shrubs, then you’ve probably seen a sparrow. Sparrows are small birds that have conical bills for eating seeds. Some sparrow species live on Long Island all year round, while others migrate here from northern habitats to spend the winter. Sparrows usually (but not always) have streaky brown feathers, long pinkish legs, and spend their time close to the ground where they forage and find safety in dense ground cover. Sparrows also tend to hold their tail horizontal or slightly raised in relation to their body, whereas finches hold their tail downward.
Fox sparrows (Passerella iliaca) have some special moves which they use to find seeds & small insects under leaf litter, including their “double- scratch” method, where they hop forwards and then backwards while simultaneously scratching the ground. This chunky sparrow, named after their “red fox” colored feathers, nests in northern parts of Canada in the spring and early summer. Adult birds will bravely lure predators away from their nest by pretending to have a broken wing. Fox sparrows are a winter visitor to Long Island and can sometimes be seen at the Refuge near the bird feeders.
White-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) are aptly named after the white throat patch under their small bill. Another defining ID is the yellow patch of feathers over their eyes. White-throated sparrows spend their summers breeding just north of Long Island. Afterwards, they will migrate to Long Island and forage for the seeds of grasses. They might even visit your backyard bird feeder for black oil sunflower seeds during the months of October through March.
The dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) is a uniquely patterned sparrow with slate gray plumage and white outer tail feathers. They form large flocks as they overwinter on Long Island, and during this time they live in a pecking order or hierarchy based on which birds arrived to the overwintering grounds first. Dark-eyed juncos are one of the most common birds in North America – a recent study found that their population is around 630 million individuals. Look for them in forested areas or even your backyard.
Other sparrows that can be spotted at the Refuge include the song sparrow, rufous sided towhee, white-crowned sparrow, swamp sparrow, field sparrow, chipping sparrow, and American tree sparrow. An invasive species, called the house sparrow, can also be seen but is actually not very closely related to North America’s native sparrows because it is a Eurasian species. House sparrows were misguidedly introduced to North American in the 1850s to control linden moth caterpillars. Search for sparrows on your next winter walk at the Refuge!
by Cara Fernandes