Winter Visitors

by Deborah Rayfield

Once my summer birds have flown to warmer climes south, I know to be on the lookout for the winter birds that will grace our yard.  It’s always a moment of joy to spot the first “snowbird” of the season.  This year, it was the White-crowned Sparrow.  Being able to distinguish one sparrow from the next can confound birding experts, but a few simple pointers will help you learn to identify some of the sparrows that will be visiting your backyard feeders this season.

First, keep a good quality seed out for the birds.  If you feed only black oil sunflower seed, it will discourage a good many nuisance birds, but the squirrels will thank you if they can reach the feeder.  I also keep a feeder out with a good mix of white millet. This is very attractive to winter sparrows and other smaller birds.

The White-crowned sparrow sports a very distinctive black and white striped crown.  My nickname for this bird is the “bicycle helmet” sparrow because his striped crown reminds me of the protective helmets that bikers wear now.  With a length of  7”,  pink, orange or yellowish bill, whitish throat and mostly gray underparts, you will spot the White-crowned hopping around under the feeder looking for fallen seeds.  They enjoy company, so usually you will see more than one at a time.

Another sparrow to look for is the dramatically feathered Harris sparrow.   This is a quite large bird at 7 ½ inches long.  The bird has a deep black crown, face and bib with a pink bill. His breast is snowy white.  The Harris also likes to hop along the ground looking for seed.

A long-time birder once told me that if a person can learn one new bird a week, they would remember it for a lifetime.  If you want to start on your life list of birds, make this your homework.  With access to the internet, many photos of these sparrows can be seen, helping with identification.  When you get serious, buy a bird identification guide and a pair of binoculars.  My favorite now is the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America, but I just saw another one from Nat Geo about common backyard birds that I might want to add to my library. This would make a great book for beginning birders.

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