Late fall and winter brings my favorite family of birds to the Meadowlands and to my backyard: Sparrows. This may sound a little strange to folks that have not been drawn into the wonderful, diverse world of Sparrows, but there is a lot more to these LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs) then you might think.
Our native sparrows are beautiful, fascinating and travel from as far away as Sub Arctic Canada to spend the fall and winter months in the Meadowlands and even in your very own New Jersey backyards.
The bird that may come to mind to the uninitiated when you first consider sparrows is the bird that you find eating most of the seed at your feeders, the very abundant English House Sparrow. The House Sparrow, although a very interesting species in itself, is not native to the U.S. (Or necessarily from England for that matter). It’s not really a Sparrow either; it is more closely related to the Weaver Finch family of birds.
Among our many beautiful and fascinating native species of sparrows that you might find passing through or taking up winter residence in your backyard sanctuary might be the White Throated Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Field Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, the Dark-Eyed Junco and the Eastern Towhee, (yup, the last two are sparrows also).
On occasion, if you are very observant and check your field guides very closely you might find a Lincoln’s, Savannah or even a White-Crowned Sparrow skulking in and around your grasses and shrubs.
A beautiful, snowy morning brought the first Fox Sparrows to my backyard many years ago. A glance out my back door window caught the beautiful rusty reds, browns and gray colors digging through the snow with its large feet in search of seeds. It was a sight that made the Fox Sparrow my favorite until this day.
Sparrows prefer open habitat and for the most part are ground feeders, but do occasionally come up to a bird feeder when the ground is snow covered and your feeder has a good size tray or perching area.
Ground feeder trays, especially ones with roofs, protect seed from bad weather and work great. They will also be used by Cardinals and Mourning Doves depending what seed blend you use.
But one of the best ways to lure sparrows to the backyard, especially the more cautious species, is to simply sprinkle some white proso millet under your shrubs.
This tiny white seed is very similar to food they may find in the wild and becomes an important food source when the New Jersey snows blanket the backyard. It’s great fun to watch the leaves flying about when the White-Throats go scratching around in search of these small white morsels.
Sparrows have a very varied diet, mostly insects in spring and summer and more seeds and berries in winter. You can improve your backyard habitat for sparrows by planting diverse natural food sources such as native grasses like Switchgrass and Little Bluestem.
Sparrows will also eat berries if they can find them in winter so planting native shrubs that hold their fruit into the cold months like Winterberry Holly and Chokeberry will help the little guys through the winter cold.
Many of our Sparrow species are declining due to habitat loss and have unfortunately been added to the New Jersey DEP Endangered and Threatened Species List. Our Sparrows are a wonderful sundry of fascinating and beautiful family of birds. Learning to appreciate them, protecting their natural habitat and improving our backyards is a start that will help them survive for future generations.
Thanks to Alice Leurck for providing the wonderful photos for this column!