The transient sparrows of spring

The sparrow family is the largest in the world. It includes grosbeaks, buntings, finches, and crossbills, as well as a host of real sparrows.
There are 56 species of these birds in Canada.
I suppose most people think of sparrows as those little brown birds which hang around the yard, the barn, or the henhouse and make a nuisance of themselves.
These are English Sparrows, and the strange thing about them is they are not sparrows at all! They are weaver finches, and they were brought to this continent on purpose–a bad mistake.
In the early part of spring, there are at least four easily-identified real sparrows who are passing through on their way to their northern breeding grounds. They come to us twice a year only–once on the way up and again on the way down.
The White-crowned Sparrow (Zenotrichia Leucophyrys) is one of these. A fairly large sparrow, it has a slim, trim, somewhat aristocratic look about it. Identify it by its head markings–two broad black lines on either side, with the top of the head pure white.
The beak is pinkish and the breast is clear gray, with no trace whatever of a white throat. You can easily distinguish it from its close relative, the White-throated Sparrow.
The second one is the Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca). This is a good-sized bird, one of the largest of all the sparrows, and easily distinguished by its colour.
It is very heavily streaked with rusty red (some birds being real fox red in places), especially around the base of the tail. The breast is gray, again striped with reddish.
The male bird has a very pleasant song, full of trills and whistles.
Third is the comedian in black face, Harris’s Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula). You can’t mistake this one, with his black face, cap, and chin. Young birds have less black but even they are unmistakeable.
The last one is the Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea), a name which was very poorly chosen. It usually stays around low shrubs, or on the ground or in weedy fields.
This one has some special distinguishing marks, too. The top of its head is chestnut red but then so are those of a lot of other sparrows.
But the Tree Sparrow has one thing which none of the others have. Right in the middle of its breast is a single black spot.
These four sparrows nest away up in the north, at least as far as the tree line, and some of them even on to the Arctic tundra. When they pass through Northern Ontario, they are very easily attracted to bird feeders.
Like all sparrows, they are seed-eaters, and all of them scratch and rustle around in the leaves looking for food.
These four transients are with us for only a little while each year. They are well worth seeing.

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