Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Celebrating Individuals

Pileated Woodpecker

Every day for most of this fall and winter, I saw at least one Pileated Woodpecker in my yard. Sometimes it was a female but more often a male. When it was a male, I’d try to see the bird’s right leg. If I got a clear view, part of the time I could see that it wore an aluminum numbered band; part of the time, that band was clearly not there.   

Banded Pileated Woodpecker

When I did get photos of the bird with the band, at most only three numbers were visible from my angle. But day after day I took photos, and little by little worked out the entire 9-number sequence (#115423658). I was so focused on the male with the band that I couldn’t help but name him—BB for “Banded Boy.” I suspected that I had a total of three Pileateds visiting: BB, one female, and one unbanded male, but because the two were not banded and didn’t bear any other permanent identifying markings, I’ll never be sure that there weren't more. The bird I was invested in was the individual I could pick out—BB.   

Pileated Woodpecker

On April 23, I was delighted to see and photograph BB and a female in my suet feeder at the same time. He’s been visiting every few days—I took my most recent photo of him so far on May 13. I presume he’s nesting somewhere in the neighborhood, but so far, I haven’t tracked down where.   

Adult Black-capped Chickadee regrowing tail feathers

It’s thrilling to be able to recognize an individual wild Pileated Woodpecker with absolute certainty. Over the years, I’ve been able to recognize a handful of individual chickadees, some for longer periods of time than others. Early this spring one of my feeder chickadees and a chickadee at my daughter’s house were both missing all their tail feathers, presumably from close encounters with predators. I got to watch day after day as the tail feathers grew in, but now these chickadees are indistinguishable from the others, to my eyes.   

Black-capped Chickadee with deformed bill

One winter, I had a chickadee with a deformed, badly overgrown bill. He became a regular, feeding directly out of my hand and counting on me to provide nutritious mealworms, so I faithfully attended to him every single day. In spring, the overgrown tips of the beak eventually broke off and with proper wear and hammering, he managed to make it pretty much indistinguishable from any other chickadee's bill. But meanwhile, while the bill was still overgrown, I discovered he had a more permanent identifying feature—he was missing the three front toes on his right foot. After the bill was fixed, I could still pick him out.  

My little chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

A full year later, when he nested in my neighbor Jeanne’s yard, I could see him feeding young and carrying away fecal sacs. He was the father of the first two baby chickadees I ever watched fledge from the nest. I was thrilled and filled with pride, knowing I had played a part in his survival. But after that summer, I never saw him again. The probability is high that he died that fall—we live right along the hawk migration flyway. But there is also a good possibility that his mate was from a different winter flock and he moved on to her part of the neighborhood. He may well have lived one, two, or several years longer. I’ll never know for certain.  

Black-capped Chickadee--fledging day!

BlueJayLudwig1.jpg

During the years I rehabbed wild birds, three of “my” birds came back the following year and were recognizable by their behavior. First was when we lived in Madison, Wisconsin, and I raised a baby Blue Jay I called Ludwig. Over the course of the summer, he grew adept at finding his own food and started associating with the neighborhood jays; he disappeared in the fall. The next year when we were in Chicago for spring break, our neighbor saw a jay pecking on our apartment’s kitchen and bedroom windows, and he alighted briefly on her lawn chair to stare at her face before flying off. That had to be Ludwig.  

Katie and Pine Siskin

In Duluth, a baby Pine Siskin that my little daughter helped me care for disappeared with the siskin migration that fall. But the next spring when Katie was riding her tricycle on our front sidewalk, in flew a little siskin who alighted on her finger. It’s pretty much impossible that that could have been any other individual.   

Northern Flickers

Northern Flickers

And one summer my boys helped me raise two baby flickers. When they could fly, we set them free in our yard. As they went farther and farther afield, they’d fly back and alight on or near us if they were hungry and heard us make a particular whistle. They disappeared in October, but the next spring when Joey was doing his paper route, a flicker was watching him from a tree so he made that whistle and zoom—in flew the bird, alighting right on his chest!   

We never saw any of these birds again, but felt so grateful that they’d survived the winter. And we felt something deeper than gratification that they still recognized and trusted us enough to stop by and give us a final little greeting, their way of acknowledging that we'd done right by them.

Northern Flickers

Sunday, May 15, 2022

St. Louis County Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

In 1870, back when Ulysses S. Grant was president (I mention this only to give a bit of historical context and because Grant was my favorite president, though neither that fact nor Grant himself have any bearing on this), a shipment of European songbirds imported from Germany arrived in St. Louis, Missouri, part of a widespread effort to introduce birds from other continents to North America. Most of the released birds didn’t survive long in this unfamiliar land. Some individuals managed to mate, and some pairs lived long enough to breed, but for virtually all the species brought here like this, any descendants died out within a few generations.   

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

But individuals of one species in that St. Louis release not only survived and bred successfully but gradually become established: the Eurasian Tree Sparrow. Both that species and its close relative the House Sparrow were introduced in many places throughout the continent during the nineteenth century. The House Sparrow spread like wildfire, but the only introduction of the Eurasian Tree Sparrow that “took” was this one. For over a century, the species stayed within a narrow range in northeastern Missouri, west-central Illinois, and southeastern Iowa.   

It's probably just a coincidence that the U.S. range of Eurasian Tree Sparrows coincides fairly well with that of fans of the St. Louis Cardinals. The baseball team didn’t exist until 1881, and was called the St. Louis Browns until 1900, so the bird was established well before the St. Louis Cardinals even existed, but if these little immigrants had any interest in baseball, they’d of course root for the red birds.  (I suppose it's also a coincidence that Ulysses S. Grant lived in St. Louis for a time, too, though that was before the Eurasian Tree Sparrows were brought there.)  

Ulysses S. Grant

I learned about Eurasian Tree Sparrows four years before I became a birder, when my University of Illinois biology class took a field trip to the St. Louis Zoo in 1971. My professor optimistically thought they’d be hopping around the zoo grounds with House Sparrows, but he could not pick one out. I wasn’t quite clear what he was talking about until I became a birder and read my Peterson and Golden Guides cover to cover. Russ and I stopped in St. Louis on our way to Texas in December 1978, and we spent Christmas morning walking cluelessly around a few neighborhoods without luck.   

Little by little over the next quarter century, I saw most of the birds in my field guide. By 1999, my life list reached the magic number I’d set as a goal when I started out: 600 species. Now when I thumbed through my field guide, the birds I had  not seen stood out glaringly. So on the morning of October 28, 2004, I made it to St. Louis, where a guy on the national Bird Chat listserv had invited me to see it at his feeder.  

I’m not the kind of person who senses auras, but on this morning as I entered St. Louis on the expressway, the entire city seemed weighted down with a palpable gloom. It was creepy, but I could not explain it, especially because I was so filled with joyful anticipation of seeing this longed for  lifer.   

I reached my friend’s house a few minutes after his flock of Eurasian Tree Sparrows had left for a while. As we waited for them to return, we mostly chatted about the upcoming election (Ulysses S. Grant was not running), but then switched to sports and the World Series. (As a Cubs fan, I hardly ever had reason to notice the post season.) The night before, the Curse of the Bambino had ended, and Boston was celebrating their first World Series win since 1918. Suddenly I realized the oppressive melancholy in the air was real, this morning after the Cardinals’ heartbreaking loss right there in St. Louis.  

Busch Stadium seen from the Arch

We stopped talking about sports when the Eurasian Tree Sparrows returned to his feeder. 

My lifer Eurasian Tree Sparrow, in St. Louis

In 2006, I became fast friends with a wonderful woman named Susan Eaton who lives in St. Louis. I’ve stayed with her several times and have never once missed the sparrow.   

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

During my Big Year in 2013, I wasn’t able to stop in St. Louis except for a brief stop on the way home from Texas in July, when I was in a big hurry. Even the most reliable feeder birds come and go, so to improve my chances, Susan’s husband David spray-painted a sign, “ETS for Laura.” And the moment I stepped into their backyard, voila!  

untitled-53.jpg

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

In 2014, I saw and photographed the sparrows where they actually belong, in Austria and Hungary.   

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

In January 2015, I saw a few in Quincy, Illinois.  

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Even though their range here in America is so restricted, Eurasian Tree Sparrows have popped up in at least 10 states and 3 provinces. (The New Jersey record is assumed to be ship assisted, as are the several different west coast appearances, particularly multiple records on Long Beach, California, which is a major port.) I’d never seen one outside its normal range despite some appearances in Wisconsin and Minnesota, until 2017, when one turned up in Two Harbors. A great many birders saw it, virtually always perched in trees right at the Do North Pizzeria.   

Do North Pizzeria

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Two Harbors is in Lake County, and I figured that was as close to home as I was ever going to see this bird. But this week, one turned up at Scott Wolff's bird feeder right here in Duluth on Park Point.  

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

The coolest thing about that, of course, is that we’re in St. Louis County. I don’t know if this individual was hatched in that other St. Louis County or came from parents in Iowa, Illinois, or somewhere else. I like to think this little bird traveled from one St. Louis County to another, like the saw-whet owl Frank Nicoletti banded at Hawk Ridge who was recaptured at a banding station in that other St. Louis County, coincidentally when my friend Susan was helping. 

I love how birds crisscross the continent and the world, stitching connections between people and places as they enrich our lives.  

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Homemade Books and Picture Cards for Children

Walter and Chuckie Chickadee

Scott Weidensaul’s wonderful A Warbler’s Journey is being released this week, making me think more about children’s picture books. All three of my kids loved Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever and The Sesame Street Word Book, both of which were great vocabulary builders and allowed us opportunities to explain farms, construction work sites, big cities, firefighting, and other situations the kids hadn’t experienced firsthand, and led to fun improvisation as we all made up stories around the pictures. But unfortunately, these word books were limited when it came to natural history. The Sesame Street book had a few nice pigeon illustrations and even showed Bert looking at them with binoculars, and it had a couple of tiny robin pictures, and both books showed farm ducks and chickens, but otherwise, they didn’t focus on real-life birds. 

My kids did have several books about animals with high-quality illustrations. Text in these was minimal, which I think is best. Like other word books, these expanded my children’s concepts and vocabulary and opened their eyes to creatures they could look for in their own backyards or when we went to Grandma and Grandpa’s house in the northern Wisconsin woods. I never considered buying books that put cute or misleading words into the mouths of realistic-looking birds, though oddly enough I was fine with some very unrealistic cartoons and silly works of fiction. We could all be charmed by the community of friendly woodland creatures in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty while understanding that real bunnies and squirrels are wise to steer clear of Great Horned Owls. I know how important it is for children to learn about whales, polar bears, lions, tigers, pandas, ostriches, and penguins, but I'll never understand why these exotic creatures are shown in so many more books for small Midwestern children than gray squirrels, chickadees, jays, or crows. 

While Joey was still an only child, I made him his own book about nature, Animals at Joey’s House, using magazine photos and pictures from posters I’d used in my classroom showing birds and mammals we’d seen in our yard and family snapshots of two other animal species in our yard, us and our dog. I coated the pages in clear contact paper. The book sort of held up over the years despite the colored inks bleeding a bit, but it looks horribly primitive and incomplete compared to the kind of books I could have printed now at fairly low cost using my own photos. Back then I wasn't photographing birds or other animals.

So far I haven’t made any books about the animals Walter can see in his yard. This time around, I've been making something more flexible and timely than any book could be.

Long, long ago, when I was a teacher, the schools I taught in didn’t have the resources to purchase field guides for every kid. When we took bird walks, passing around my own field guide so everyone could see how a particular bird was depicted while the real bird was still there just didn’t work. It took a few seconds for me to find the page with the bird, and then each kid would have to look through four or five species on that page to pick out the right one, compare how it was depicted with the real thing, and hand off the field guide to the next kid until someone lost the page—then I’d have to start all over. The pages of the field guide everyone liked most, the Golden Guide, fell out with heavy use, but that turned out to be a feature, not a bug—I cut up those falling-out pages and made flash cards. Before heading out on a bird walk, I picked out the cards of birds I anticipated seeing. It took a few seconds to pull out the right one, but then it was easy for the kids to pass it around.  

Remembering that inspired me to create picture cards for Walter. I make 5x7 labeled prints of my own photos of birds and mammals we've seen together, such as chickadees, crows, squirrels, rabbits, and deer, and encase them in durable plastic sleeves. I add new picture cards whenever I want, and he plays with them every day. 

Walter learning about chickadees

As Walter gets older and I have time, I’ll almost certainly make him some actual books using the print services now available. Some of them might be nice for other children, too, but my goal is making creations that are meaningful for this particular little person. Right now, I’m delighted that he likes my photos and thrilled that he has already seen so many wild alive creatures. This one-year-old child is starting out life with a much firmer sense of animals than I had even as a young adult, and that makes me very happy.

Walter and Dr. Blue Jay

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Catching the Start of the Dawn Chorus

American Robin
My front-yard robin. This is the best photo I have of him so far.

On Mother’s Day, I awoke a little after 4 AM hearing a robin singing somewhere out front. I like to wake up that early, set my sound recorder in my backyard to capture morning song, and head back to bed or get to work. In the past few weeks I’ve mostly headed back to bed while I recover from Covid. 

My weather app said rain was imminent. There’s nowhere in the backyard where my equipment is safe from rain, but that persistent robin out front inspired me to try something new. Our front porch is covered, so I set my recorder there, pointed its shotgun microphone in an area between a spruce tree and a small maple—the robin sings from both—and started recording at 4:14 AM. That’s how I made the best robin song recording I’ve ever managed, with a perfect 11-minute stretch when the bird must have been perched precisely in line with the microphone. But it bothered me all day that I had no idea what time he had started. 

Back when I took my first ornithology class the summer of 1975, just a few months after I started birding, I had to pull an all-nighter to finish my field research paper. Our apartment was too small for me to play music to help me stay awake after Russ went to bed, but a robin spent the whole night singing not far from my open window. Hour after hour after hour, he kept me company, and I finished the paper just before I had to leave for class. Whew! I still wonder if I’d have finished that paper on time had that robin not been pulling an all-nighter of his own.

My Peabody Street robin wasn’t singing when I went to bed Saturday night, but what time did he start? Was he singing loud from his first note or did he begin softly and build up gradually? Did he make any preliminary notes before his actual song?

Suddenly, I realized how very easy it would be to answer these questions and more—indeed, I was embarrassed not to have done this much sooner. My Zoom H6 sound recorder was right there in my hands, as obvious as Dorothy's ruby slippers. All I had to do was start recording before I went to bed. My sound files are time-stamped, so the recording would tell me exactly when the robin started singing. 

On Sunday night, the Peabody Street robin definitely did not pull an all-nighter. The waveform didn’t show any nearby sounds except the footsteps of people walking by and a few cars until 3:42 AM, when the robin made a chatter call from a short distance away (he probably sleeps in the spruce tree), then came closer and made two chatter calls in quick succession, and immediately started singing away. This was just about exactly 2 hours before sunrise. Here's the link to the entire, unedited hour-and-a-half song bout beginning when the robin did. 

He kept going strong until about 5:17, probably stopping for breakfast with his mate when it was just starting to get light, about 20 minutes before sunrise. Meanwhile, a chickadee made a few dee dee dee calls at 4:32, an hour and ten minutes or so before sunrise, and that one or another started singing persistently at 5:05, over a half hour before sunrise. 

While my ears were still working properly, I used to do a Breeding Bird Survey in northern Minnesota every June. I was supposed to start my survey at 4:38 AM exactly, a half hour before local sunrise. I usually got there at least 10 minutes early—sometimes closer to a half hour—but never once did I get there before a lot of birds were already in full song.  

Don Kroodsma at the 2001 Sound Recording Workshop
Here's Don Kroodsma in the Sierra Nevadas during our Cornell Lab Field Recording Workshop.

Back in 2001, when I took the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s field recording course in the Sierra Nevadas, Don Kroodsma was a guest lecturer who was planning to come along the day of our field trip to record the “dawn chorus.” I expected us to be leaving at 2 or so, and certainly no later than 3, which was clearly what Don Kroodsma expected, too, but groans from the rest of the group led to what I thought was a horrible compromise—we wouldn’t even be leaving until 5 AM. Don decided the heck with us and headed to the site at the proper time. We arrived in time to hear a lot of morning bird song, but it was far from the magical experience of a true dawn chorus. Don and I laughed about this the last time we talked, a year ago. He remembered he had just finished recording for the day when our group finally showed up. He also remembered that I wanted to start out as early as he did.

Another man named Don was tailing Don Kroodsma that spring while researching a book about bird song. Within the chapter about this Cornell workshop, he quoted a couple of the male participants by name, but the only time he quoted a woman, he mentioned her affiliation without naming her. He also described the discussion of when we should leave for the dawn chorus field trip, but claimed that Don Kroodsma was the only person who wanted to leave early—according to his book, all the class participants wanted to sleep in. Women back then tended to graciously overlook the many times a man ignored us or blew us off. I’m so glad my children’s generation has a stronger sense of fairness. But the big takeaway is that what we call a dawn chorus begins way, way before sunrise. The early birder really does catch the worm-eating birds. 

American Robin

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Recognizing Sparrows, Part 2: Sparrows with Unstreaked Breasts

White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

I’ve always had an affinity for sparrows, starting with the House Sparrows that cheeped outside my window when I was a very small child, telling one another about their day’s adventures. 

House Sparrow
House Sparrow

I could never have dreamed that the ancestors of these confiding, cheerful little creatures had been ripped from their native lands in Europe and Asia and released in ecosystems here that weren’t prepared for them, leading to so much death and destruction to bluebirds, Purple Martins, and other American birds.  

House Sparrow
House Sparrow

When I became a birder, I was shocked in reading my first field guides to learn that American ornithologists didn’t consider them sparrows at all—both the Golden and Peterson guides said House Sparrows belonged to a family called “weaver finches.” Current taxonomists have taken them out of that family, putting them into a smaller family of “Old World sparrows.” That’s fitting—the English word sparrow had been used for centuries in reference to the Eurasian and African birds called by that name in even the oldest English translations of the Bible. If taxonomists were at all consistent in applying nomenclature rules, they’d have come up with a different name for our American sparrows. That which we call an American sparrow by any other name would be as sweet.  

House Sparrow at Bar Harbor
House Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

Be that as it may, I remember the exact moment when I fell in love with my first all-American sparrow, on April 12, 1975. My favorite instructor at Michigan State University, Bob Hinkle, had brought a group of us graduate students to a naturalists’ conference in Natural Bridge, Virginia. We were gathered near the conference center when I heard the most strikingly beautiful bird song imaginable—a pure, whistled song. Bob Hinkle said it was a White-throated Sparrow singing Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody. I had to see the bird to count it on my life list, and so Bob led me to the hedge where the song was coming from, and voila! 

White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

Much as I’d always loved House Sparrows, the bold black, white, and yellow markings on my lifer White-throated Sparrow’s head were as striking and memorable as its song. Two weeks later, back in Lansing, when I saw some at the feeders in the Fenner Arboretum, I didn’t need a field guide to identify them. The next year we were in Chicago for a bit during spring migration and there they were, right in Russ’s parents’ backyard in the very neighborhood where I’d grown up, singing away. How had I never once noticed that amazing song, so very easy to hear now that I was aware of it, during any of the 23 springs of my life before I took up birding? I often wonder how many other beautiful things right there in my own world today don’t exist for me because my eyes and ears filter them out of ignorance.  

White-throated Sparrow detail
White-throated Sparrow

A lot of people growing up in urban, suburban, or rural areas learn their first sparrows as I did. The Old-World House Sparrows may be woven into the fabric of their daily lives, whether they’re hearing them out their bedroom window or tossing French fries to them at fast food restaurants. And the next sparrow to grab their attention is very often a White-throat singing that pure, whistled song or showing off its striking markings, the spark prompting many people to reach for a field guide for the very first time. 

White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

Half of all White-throated Sparrows don’t have the bold black-and-white head pattern but, rather, a much duller, tan-and-off-black pattern. The marking between eye and bill is usually much more brilliant yellow in the white-striped than the tan-striped birds, and the white throat on these duller birds isn’t as bold and clearly defined, either. 

When I started birding, I assumed the birds with duller plumage were females, and half of them are, but so are half of the boldly striped birds. All the white-striped birds, male and female both, sing, but only male tan-striped birds sing. That’s an interesting story in itself, but because migrating tan-striped birds are found in the same flocks as white-striped birds, identifying them is almost as straightforward as identifying the more boldly marked White-throated Sparrows. 

White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow

One other sparrow has similar black-and-white striping on the head: the White-crowned Sparrow. Its body shape is different, but you need to spend time with both species before that feature is helpful. More useful are the White-crowned Sparrow’s pink or yellowish bill rather than the nondescript dark bill of the White-throat and the fact that White-crowned Sparrows don’t have any sign of a yellow lore. 

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow

The White-throated Sparrow has an overall warm, brownish appearance while the White-crowned has a solid gray underside and a cool gray nape. The White-crowned Sparrow’s throat feathers may be whitish, but they don’t have a border setting off the White-throated Sparrow’s defining feature. Once in a rare while, a White-crowned Sparrow spends winter up here, but every one of them breeds far from here. White-throated Sparrows nest in the woods all around us, including small woodlots in towns and cities up here, so are fairly easy to find all summer. A handful of them may also spend the winter in the Northland.

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
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American Tree Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow

Four sparrows that may visit our feeders in spring have rusty or rufous caps. (I have to specify spring because immature White-crowned Sparrows have a rusty cap when we see them in fall.) The American Tree Sparrow, one of the first to arrive at our feeders in April and who overwinters not too far south of my neck of the woods, has a rufous line matching the crown color, which starts at the eye and widens in the cheek area. 

American Tree Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow

The tree sparrow’s upper bill is dark but the lower is bright yellow. From most angles, you may see a “tie tack”—a spot of dark feathers in the center of the clean gray breast. The American Tree Sparrow usually also has a small soft brown or rufous patch on either side of the breast at the bend of the closed wing.  

American Tree Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow

Most tree sparrows vanish right as Chipping Sparrows arrive. Both species have conspicuous rusty caps, so a lot of people confuse them. Chippie bodies are shaped a little different, but that isn’t helpful until you’re familiar with both. Chipping Sparrows have a clean black eyeline that starts at the bill, making it look as if they were wearing eyeliner. Spring adults have a solid black bill. The Chippie’s underside is a pale shade of gray close to off-white, it lacks the Tree Sparrow’s tie tack, and it never has a rufous patch at the bend of the wing on the side of the breast. 

Chipping Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Field Sparrow

Field Sparrows are hardly ever seen as far north as Duluth but are common nesters not too far south of here and should be working their way north with the warming climate. They don’t have any eyeline at all which, along with their pale eye-ring and pink bill, gives them something of an anemic look. They have a small rufous patch behind the ear where the tree sparrow’s eyeline broadens. And the Field Sparrow has a simply gorgeous, easy-to-learn song: a sweet slurred note repeated, faster and faster.  

Field Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow

The other sparrow with a rusty cap is the Swamp Sparrow, which doesn’t show up at feeders often and the cap is much darker. The wings and tail also have a lot of that dark chestnut color. The Swamp Sparrow’s breast can appear slightly streaked. 

Swamp Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow

Even though my backyard is entirely the wrong habitat, a Clay-colored Sparrow or two often shows up here during spring migration. This is a small, fairly pale sparrow with a line starting at the eye and widening at the cheek. That line is darker than that of the American Tree Sparrow but not as clean and distinctive as the eyeline of the Chipping Sparrow. It does have a light gray eyebrow line, not as distinct as the white eyebrow of the Chippy, and a soft brownish cheek patch bordered above by that eyeline and below by an equally dark line. Outside of spring, Chipping Sparrows can also have a cheek patch but never bordered with a dark line below. 

Clay-colored Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow

The first thing I notice on a Clay-colored Sparrow is the soft gray nape, which stands out because of the brownish cheek patch. Winter Chipping Sparrows share that nape and cheek patch color, so to be certain, make sure you see the lower border to the cheek patch. 

Clay-colored Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Harris's Sparrow
Harris's Sparrow

The last sparrow likely to turn up in northland backyards is the largest and, perhaps, the coolest of all, Harris’s Sparrow. In spring it’s unmistakable, with a very black crown and bib, gray cheeks with a small black marking behind the ear, pure white underside, and pink bill. Both adults and immatures look entirely different in fall, but not at all like other sparrows except, due to the black bib, a little bit like House Sparrows. Which brings us full circle. 

Harris's Sparrow
Harris's Sparrow
House Sparrow
House Sparrow