Don Torino’s Life In The Meadowlands: The American Tree Sparrow –Winter Visitor to the Meadowlands

As I wandered a sunny, wintery open field through the Meadowlands many years ago I was startled by a tiny little bird that was barley clinging to the tip of a windswept phragmite.

I was immediately captivated by this diminutive but very energetic little bird with a rusty colored cap, gray face and very small and dark but very noticeable splotch on its breast . After realizing my presence it very quickly raised the rufous hackles on its head and was off like a flash into the russet grasses of the field.

As soon as I got home I quickly perused my field guide and discovered that I had been privileged to observe an American Tree Sparrow, a bird that truly racks up its frequent flyer miles migrating all the way from the tundra of northern Canada to spend the long Meadowlands winters here along with us.

According to Cornell’s “All About Birds,” the American Tree Sparrows name was mistakenly given to them by European settlers because it reminded them of their Eurasian Tree Sparrows back home. Our American Tree Sparrows however are in reality ground birds. They forage on the ground, nest on the ground, and breed primarily in scrubby areas at or above the tree line far up in the Arctic Tundra area of Canada .

The Tree Sparrow not only winters in the fields, roadsides and meadows in places like DeKorte Park, Laurel Hill Park and Mill Creek Marsh, but they readily visit our backyard bird feeders. In fact, American Tree Sparrows needs to consume about 30 percent of their body weight in food and a similar percentage in water each day or they may not survive the long winter night.

Their diet, at least in winter, is almost entirely seeds and possibly a few insects and berries if they are available. Your backyard birdfeeder can help play an important part in their survival. Add White Proso millet to you seed mix or just spread handfuls of this tiny seed under your shrubs and around your yard .

Our Native Sparrows like the American Tree are a complex and incredible group of birds that depend on the Meadowlands for their ultimate survival. The more we learn about the fantastic and vast array of birdlife that thrives around us should make us all realize how important it is that we continue to work together to preserve and protect the natural places around us like our Meadowlands. Without them birds like the American Tree Sparrow could not continue to endure.

For more info on the American Tree Sparrow go to

2 thoughts on “Don Torino’s Life In The Meadowlands: The American Tree Sparrow –Winter Visitor to the Meadowlands

  1. Shayna

    I often see American Tree Sparrows busily feeding in phragmites, but I had a bit of a surprise the other day when I was out photographing Yellow-rumped Warblers in northern bayberry–an American Tree Sparrow popped up and started eating the berries too. I’m not sure if they’re counted as a species that can digest the waxy coatings, but that bird seemed to be enjoying them!

    1. Don

      Hi Shayna, I dont think bayberry is considered a favorite of but when its available they do consume some fruit..good spot ! we never stop learning about nature, every time we venture outside


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