Twenty-three sparrows

The white-throated sparrow, just one of the many sparrow variations in Michigan.

By Jeanne Church

I never knew we had so many different kinds of sparrows!! Before heading down this nature photography road a few years ago, I thought that the term “sparrow” referred to just one kind of bird, in the same way that the term “blue jay” refers to just one kind of bird. Apparently, that’s not the case. So, what exactly is a sparrow?

The term “sparrow” covers a wide range of relatively small, mostly drab brown birds, known collectively to avid bird watchers as “little brown jobs” or “LBJs” because they all seem to look alike and can be notoriously difficult to identify. To qualify as a sparrow, though, these little birds must share certain physical characteristics related to size, plumage, and bill shape.

Most sparrows are relatively small, from 4 to 8 inches in length. By comparison, a female rose-breasted grosbeak, which looks very similar to a house sparrow, is twice as large.

Most sparrows have brown, mottled plumage like the ubiquitous house sparrow, an adaptive little bird that has learned to live among us quite easily and can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Unfortunately, house sparrows are not a native species and, once introduced in the mid-1800s, began competing with our native birds for both food and nesting sites. They are considered an invasive species.

The last characteristic shared by nearly all sparrows is their short, thick, conical-shaped bill. It’s perfect for cracking open all the seeds they so voraciously consume.

I was surprised to learn that we have 23 different sparrows here in Michigan!  It wasn’t just the numbers that surprised me, it was that the list included birds like the dark-eyed junco, the eastern towhee, and the snow bunting! Those birds don’t look anything like a typical sparrow to me!

I’ve only found and photographed about half of those 23 sparrows. Of that group, my two favorites are the white-throated sparrows and the fox sparrows. Both have unique and distinctive markings that set them apart from many of their less colorful family members.

The white-throated sparrow is a plump little bird with a long tail and a fairly small bill.  Its most distinguishing characteristic is its white bib. Interestingly enough, the white-throated sparrow comes in two color forms: a white-crowned form and a tan-crowned form. The white-crowned form has black and white stripes on its head, while the tan-crowned form has black and tan stripes. Males of both color types prefer females with the white stripes, but both kinds of females prefer males with tan stripes! Also quite interesting, I thought, is the fact that white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos occasionally mate and produce hybrids! The resulting offspring look like grayish, dully-marked white-throated sparrows but with the white outer tail feathers of a dark-eyed junco.  I would love to find one of them!

My other favorite is the fox sparrow. It isn’t nearly as flashy as the white-throated sparrow, but its rich reddish-brown feathers dappled across a white chest still make for a beautiful bird – and for a beautiful picture against a backdrop of freshly falling snow.  

To learn more about our twenty-three different Michigan sparrows, go to:

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