November 11, 2023 – Soon after the much-anticipated fall warblers have moved through, peaking in late September through early October and heading south towards their winter homes, autumn hardens its stance, and winter awaits its stage call. Arriving from the boreal forests of Canada, the sparrows, those northern nesters, show up like magic in the yards and the parks amongst the yellowing leaves and dwindling berries on their way to their winter ranges, which can include Illinois. White-crowned, Lincolns, White-throated, Tree, and Fox are just some of the sparrows we see here in Illinois during the spring and fall migrations, some of which stay throughout the cold months. Over a dozen species of sparrows visit Illinois at different times of the year and are considered seasonal. Some species of sparrows arrive in the early spring and nest throughout the summer on the prairies and in the grassy areas along wooded edges across the state. The non-native House sparrow, introduced in North America in the mid-1800s, is a year-round resident and often congregates in numbers at backyard feeders, a nemesis to the human seed provider and probably appreciated only by the Cooper’s hawk. Unlike the bright-colored neotropical warblers, sparrows have muted, earthy colors that can be as beautiful as any, with sharp edges and contrasted tones in their tiny plumage. It is always a treat to see the beautiful White-crowned sparrows arrive in our area in the fall. White-crowned sparrows nest in the far north in Canada and Alaska, which includes the vast arctic tundra region. When it suddenly appears on an exposed branch in a brushy area, the adult White-crowned sparrow is striking in its confident-looking posture, with a bold black and white striped head above a grey-to-brown body. The White-crowned sparrow is a winter resident across Illinois, with higher numbers in the southern part of the state. Another common migrant in Illinois is the Lincoln’s sparrow. These little sparrows are ground nesters, having a summer range from the northern United States across Canada and Alaska and east to the Maritimes. There are also summer populations in the western mountainous regions of the United States. The Lincoln’s sparrows go further south for the winter than the White-crowned sparrows. Their winter range is from the far southern tip of Illinois to Central America. While some continue south, many other species stay throughout the winter here in Northeastern Illinois; it is difficult to imagine a cold and snowy winter scene of leafless bushes and dried plants without those small birds of winter digging and scraping the snow for fallen seeds during those dark months.
March 12, 2023 – Of the many species of birds, the hawks, owls, eagles, cranes, waterfowl, and songbirds that migrate south and spend the winter in our area, there is one bird that probably goes unnoticed by most, and that bird is the lovely American tree sparrow. These small, well-camouflaged sparrows blend well with the leafless winter landscape of the Midwest, where they find seed sand safety at the edges of brushy wooded areas of undergrowth and thickets where they can quickly disappear into the dense woody maze when danger threatens. Even though these mid-sized sparrows are called American Tree sparrows, you are more likely to find them on or near the ground. Small flocks of the American tree sparrows spend daylight hours foraging on the ground amongst the dried plants where seeds have fallen. Weed seeds are the primary food of the sparrows during winter. During the summer months, while in their nesting range in Northern Canada and Alaska, they switch to insects as a food source for themselves and their young. The little birds take frequent but short breaks to preen and rest on a convenient perch in a small tree or bush lit by the winter sun. The well-defined earthy colors of this sharp little bird become very apparent when viewing through binoculars or at closeby backyard feeders. The sparrow has a beautiful rufous crown, a gray face with rusty colors near the eyes, and a beak of black over yellow. It has a light-colored gray breast with a distinct dark-colored smudge of a spot in the middle. It has rufous patches on the sides that blend into the gray unstreaked breast, with well-defined brown streaks running down its back towards its long narrow tail. As the winter begins to wane and the days begin to grow longer, that desire to head north for the breeding season becomes stronger. When the time is right, and the weather condition becomes favorable for the American tree sparrows to move north, they will disappear from the winter range during the nighttime and begin their starry flight towards the arctic for the nesting season. The male sparrows will reach the breeding grounds before the females. The male will seek out, claim, and aggressively protect the territory he has chosen for nesting. In a little over a month, a new generation of American tree sparrows has fledged and is building strength from the abundance of insects the arctic provides as they prepare for a long flight south as the cycle continues.
November 5, 2020 – Back in Illinois for the winter months are the White-throated sparrows, a large and attractive bird with a long tail and a bright-white throat and bold face patterns of black, white, gray, and yellow. The White-throated sparrows are considered a short to medium-distance migrant. It breeds in the United States in the Upper Great Lake region and in the coniferous and mixed forests across most of Canada. There are small pockets of year around birds in the northeast U.S. The sparrows leave the impending harsh winter of the north in autumn before the first snow and head south into the United States to a more hospitable climate that is not totally locked in ice during those cold months. They appear in northeastern Illinois about the same time in the fall each year as many other sparrows, like the White-crowned, Lincoln’s, and Swamp sparrows. Similar to the Fox sparrow, the White-throated sparrows forage on the ground under the thick gnarly cover of the shadowed understory kicking leaf litter with its feet searching for insects, seeds and fruit in a very focused but alert manner. The sparrow can be found near heavily vegetated areas around parks and near rivers and creeks where there is plenty of cover. Also, during prolonged snow cover, many birds, including the White-throated sparrow, can be found in the windswept areas along roads and in fields searching for seeds. The White-throated sparrows will show up at backyard feeders during the winter here in Illinois with other birds providing there is some good cover nearby. Backyard feeders are favorite haunts for predators like Cooper’s hawk, domestic and feral cats, so quick escapes into thickets, bushes, and trees are a necessary part of a safe habitat for feeding birds.
October 25, 2017 – A large stocky and vibrant rufous Fox Sparrow momentarily strikes a pose on the branch of a thick bush were it had been spending the morning on the ground below scratching the earth and kicking leaf litter in search of insects. Fox Sparrows spend the winter in the southern parts Illinois and the states south from Texas to the east coast. There are four groups of Fox Sparrows that are seen in North America but in Illinois we have the red group which nests during the warm months from Alaska to eastern Canada. This bird with its’ impressive size and red color really catches a person eye and is easy to distinguish between other heavily streaked sparrows and thrushes.