Keep ground-feeding sparrows around

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The stars of backyard feeding stations dominate visually. Cardinals and blue jays are spectacularly beautiful. Chickadees, titmice and nuthatches sparkle with personality. Woodpeckers entertain.

But some species, by comparison, lack visual excitement. Native sparrows, often called “LBBs” (little brown birds), lack bright colors and compelling behavior, and avoid the spotlight by feeding quietly on the ground.

Ground feeders are nice to have around because they clean up the seeds other birds kick to the ground.

Native sparrows may lack stunning colors and irresistible personalities, but they are dependable daily visitors. And some can be a challenge to identify.

Here’s a guide to some common ground-feeding sparrows that visit backyard feeders.

Dark-eyed Juncos

Dark-eyed Juncos are often called “snowbirds” because they usually arrive in late October and stay until April. This winter, however, I did not see a junco until a few weeks ago.

Juncos are easy to recognize. The charcoal gray body contrasts with the white belly, white outer tail feathers, which flash in flight, and the bright pink bill. The body of female juncos is a duller brownish-gray.

Song sparrows

Song Sparrows represent the quintessential LBB. Careful study, however, reveals several distinctive markings.

For example, their legs and feet are pink. They have a long, rounded tail, which they pump up and down when they fly. Their white throat is bordered by long dark stripes, which suggest a mustache.

And the white belly and chest are marked by heavy brown streaks that often converge into a central breast spot. They may not be colorful, but they are certainly handsome.

White sparrows

White-throated and white-crowned Sparrows can be identified by distinctive facial patterns. White-throats sport a prominent white throat, black and white crown stripes, and broad eyebrow stripes which are yellow in front of the eye and white or tan behind it.

And unlike most songbirds, which wait until spring to sing, white-throats may whistle, “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody!” on any bright winter day.

White-crowns lack the bright white throat, and the head pattern consists of zebra-like bold black and white stripes.

Tree sparrows

Tree sparrows usually arrive shortly before Christmas from their breeding grounds in northern Canada and Alaska and are easy to identify.

Look for a rusty crown, a fine rusty stripe behind the eye, two white wing bars, and, most importantly, a dark spot in the middle of an otherwise plain breast. Despite their name, tree sparrows are not forest birds. They nest on the tundra among stunted trees and shrubs. Visits by tree sparrows are particularly gratifying because they travel so far to reach our backyards.

In winter, tree sparrows inhabit old fields, forest edges, and marshes where they roam in flocks of 30 to 40 individuals. Within these flocks, smaller sub-groups of four to eight birds travel and feed together.

Fox sparrows

Another winter visitor from the north whose arrival often coincides with the holiday season is the fox sparrow. Among the largest sparrows, these measure about seven inches long and wear bright rusty feathers.

Heavy streaking across the chest converges to form a distinct central spot. When feeding, they make a lot of noise by kicking back the leaf litter with both feet like a towhee.

Fox sparrows are unmistakable. When I see a fox sparrow, I’m reminded of a big rusty song sparrow.

A few years ago I devised a simple multi-level platform feeder to attract a greater variety of native sparrows. It’s simple to build and requires no tools.

Place a 3-foot by 5-foot piece of exterior plywood on top of two sawhorses.

Then put two concrete blocks on top of the plywood and cover them with a smaller piece of plywood. Anchor the whole arrangement with another concrete block.

This set-up creates a large, three-tiered platform feeder for native sparrows. The ground is reasonably protected by the first tabletop, and initially birds congregate there.

The roof that is only as high as the concrete blocks protects the middle level. It’s here that birds will gather when it snows.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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