Randy's Natural World

A Harris’s sparrow turns its face away from driving wind and snow. Take note that the black coloring on the neck and chest — called a bib — is very slight on this bird. This almost certainly indicates that this is a young Harris’s sparrow, as they , grow with age.

Over the next few months, I will feature many types of sparrows, starting today.

Having the ability to identify different species of sparrows when they visit our yards and feeders makes watching them that much more enjoyable.

For many people, identifying sparrows can be frustrating. Birders have a name for small brown birds that are difficult to identify — little brown jobs (LBJ for short). This name is often used until the birder makes a correct identification or cannot identify the bird before it takes flight.

For many people, just calling a sparrow a sparrow is fine. However, there are many different species of sparrows and you’d really be missing out if you didn’t know one from another.

I grew up in a city, so, many times the only sparrows, I observed were house sparrows, of which I am not a big fan. They are an invasive species and often displace native songbirds from their nesting locations.

But when I learned about other sparrow species — and there are more than two dozen in this country — it was quite a rewarding challenge to identify them all.

I will begin this adventure with Harris’s sparrow.

I like Harris’s sparrows, and I must say, they are very American. That is to say, North American. Harris’s sparrows nest in the northern areas of Canada and only in Canada. Are they the only bird that nests in Canada, and nowhere else in the world, eh? Yes, they are.

However, they spend the winter in the United States. And only in the United States. The Great Plains region, to be exact, and there are only two states where they can be found in every corner, nearly all winter long — Oklahoma and Kansas. However, they also winter in large portions of Texas and Nebraska, along with smaller portions of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa and Colorado.

But, some individuals stray from their ordinary range and have been seen in all 48 states.

The Harris’s sparrow was named after 19th century ornithologist Edward Harris.

They have already arrived in Oklahoma for the winter, and several have visited my feeders.

Additionally, since they nest thousands of miles north, I will omit the nesting information from this column.

Description

They are handsome birds and are the largest sparrows in North America at between 7 and 8 inches in length.

Harris’s sparrows have black on the face, similar to house sparrows. But if you get a good look, you really can’t confuse the two. Harris’s sparrows also have black on the head. To me, they appear to have black hair and a large black beard!

During the breeding season, Harris’s sparrows have an even blacker face, top of the head and beard — called a bib.

During the winter months — when they are here in Oklahoma — this black color fades a bit but is still visible. There is a pecking order amongst males; the larger the bib, the more he is respected by other Harris’s sparrows. Bib size usually increases with age.

Harris’s sparrows have long tails and are larger than house sparrows. They are in my opinion, more striking in appearance and color than house sparrows as well. They have a pinkish colored beak.

Food

Harris’s sparrows eat seeds, fruit and insects and spiders. They will readily come to winter feeding stations and can be attracted with black oil sunflower seeds, millet and cracked corn.

Habitat

I know these sparrows will visit backyard feeders, and I’ve also observed them searching for food in overgrown fields. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, during winter, Harris’s sparrows also prefer hedgerows, agricultural fields, shrubby pastures and shrubby areas near streams. They generally shy away from dense woods or dry shortgrass prairies, according to the Lab.

Odds and ends

• According to information released by the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, because of Harris’s sparrows’ relatively remote breeding habitat, their nests were not discovered until 1931, which was well after those of most North American birds.

• The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports on its website that older Harris’s sparrows often win the best access to food and roost sites.

The website reports, “To determine why older sparrows dominated foraging flocks, researchers came up with a clever test. They noticed that older males have larger bibs, and dyed the feathers of young birds to create an artificially large bib. These younger birds with their new black bibs rose within the dominance hierarchy just like their older flock mates.”

Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for 40 years. Reach him at rnw@usa.com.