Tuesday, January 20, 2015

American Tree Sparrows at Pope Farm Conservancy!

Here's an article I wrote appearing in the latest Pope Farm Conservancy newsletter!

Just because the wintery weather has moved into southern Wisconsin doesn't mean all the interesting songbirds are gone. There is a durable migratory sparrow from the northernmost regions of Canada that will spend the winter months at our fields, prairies, and also backyard feeders.

Around late October, as most migratory songbirds near the end of their southward journey, the first American Tree Sparrows begin to arrive at Pope Farm Conservancy. Their wintering range extends as far south as north Texas, but can also be found in northern California and all the way east to North Carolina.

The American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) can be distinguished from other sparrows by their rusty cap and eyeline against an overall gray head. They have a bi-colored bill that has a yellow lower mandible and gray upper mandible. They also have a matching rusty colored shoulder marking, a white wing bar, and brown streaked back. The tree sparrow's grayish-white breast often has a dark central spot.

During winter, American Tree Sparrows can be found in medium-sized to large flocks feeding on the weeds and prairie plant seeds, especially goldenrod. They eat snow to obtain water. Though small in size (18 g), they can endure our coldest winters, even when it's twenty below zero! About the only thing they have to be concerned about is being captured and eaten by small hawks like Sharp-shinned and Cooper's, or Northern Shrikes.

As spring nears in March, male American Tree Sparrows begin to sing their melodious songs, especially on sunny days as warmer temperatures weaken winter's chill. They sing a sequence of clear notes and sweet whistles often falling in pitch. To me their songs are a harbinger of spring and a reminder that their migratory journey back to northern Canada is just about to get underway.

American Tree Sparrows are an abundant species, but they're easily missed unless you spend time outdoors during winter or have bird feeders in your backyard. Pope Farm Conservancy's prairies offer these sparrows exactly the type of habitat they need in order to survive our harsh winters. If you snowshoe or hike the conservancy’s trails this winter, pay note to a "teedle-eet teedle-eet" bird call. They're most vocal and active in the morning because they need to eat to keep warm!

Link: American Tree Sparrow - All About Birds

American Tree Sparrow © 2015 Mike McDowell

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