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Mike Jacobs Always in Season: The sparrow parade has now begun in the Red River Valley

The fox sparrow is among the largest of North American sparrows, and that alone draws attention.

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Fox sparrow.
Illustration / Mike Jacobs
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Mike Jacobs.jpg
Mike Jacobs.
Tom Stromme

GILBY, N.D. – The fox sparrow is not the first in the parade of sparrows migrating north. This spot belongs to the American tree sparrow. The tree sparrow is a pretty bird, but it is subtly colored. The fox sparrow makes a bigger splash.

The fox sparrow is among the largest of North American sparrows, and that alone draws attention. The plumage stands out, too. Although the bird is gray in color, overall, in common with other sparrows, it is heavily streaked with a rich brown or red color.

Nor is the fox sparrow a shy, retiring species. Instead, it is conspicuous, with its plumage contrasting vividly with the duller seasonal colors – browns, grays and, this spring, white.
The snow didn’t deter the fox sparrows I watched in my backyard. They were eating sunflower seeds that had spilled from my feeders. As I wrote last week, I haven’t refilled the feeder so as to discourage big flocks of birds that might be susceptible to avian influenza.

The fox sparrows took advantage of this situation. They are ground-loving birds and readily worked their way across a pile of fallen seed.

The fox sparrow is a northern sparrow, nesting across the taiga, the scrub zone between the boreal forest and the Arctic tundra. This stretches from Newfoundland to Alaska and extends southward in the Rocky Mountains.

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The next species to expect in the spring sparrow parade are Harris’ sparrow, white-crowned sparrow and white-throated sparrow, three closely related species.

Harris’ is the largest of these and is readily distinguished, even in a crowd of sparrows. Its head and breast are black, suggesting a monk’s cowl or a woman’s stole.

The other two species are smaller and quite similar. Their names describe the field marks that clinch identification. The white-throated sparrow does indeed have a white-throat – and a white crown. The white-crowned sparrow has the white crown but lacks the white throat.

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The white-throated sparrow is known for its distinctive song, often rendered “Oh! Sweet Canada! Canada! Canada!” or “Old Sam Peabody! Peabody! Peabody!” The Harris’ sparrow has a shorter rendition without the repeated notes at the end of the song.

The northern flicker was another candidate for “bird of the week.” Staci Lord, the Herald’s advertising director, called these to my attention. She asked about the woodpeckers on her lawn.

These had to be flickers, the only woodpeckers that regularly feed on the ground. The other half dozen woodpecker species that occur here are true to their name, taking food by pecking away at wood.

Flickers do that, too, but they often show up in large numbers on open grassy areas, such as city parks and lawns and rural hayfields. They are looking for ants and grubs, which might have been a challenge in this week’s weather.

There are three color morphs of flickers. These were regarded as distinct species until quite recently, when they, too, were “lumped.” Two of these, yellow-shafted and red-shafted, occur in North Dakota. The third morph, the gilded flicker, occurs in the desert southwest.

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The flickers that show up in the Red River Valley are almost always yellow-shafted; the red-shafted flicker occurs in western North Dakota and the states beyond.

The term “shaft” here refers to the undersurface of the wing feathers. These stand out when the birds are in flight.

Northern flickers do nest in our area, but they become quite secretive in summer months, a sharp contrast to their conspicuous flocking and feeding behaviors of the spring and fall migration periods.

Weather brought a significant “fall” of robins to Grand Forks. In the days between two spring storms, large numbers of robins appeared on trees and lawns throughout Grand Forks. Like the flickers, they were looking for food. In the robins’ case, I think it was mostly fallen fruit. I doubt the worms that are so often associated with robins would have been active.

Robins are unusual among birds in that they switch their diet seasonally. In summer, they are “meat eaters,” taking worms and grubs. In winter months, they are fructivores and subsist almost entirely on hanging fruit. The widespread planting of ornamental fruit trees has led to an increasing number of robins in winter.

The tundra swan was another contender for “bird of the week.” A flock of these big, white birds settled into a flooded field near our place west of Gilby.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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