Foam Lake Birding No. 45

No. 45
This very cold, thus late, spring has definitely delayed the arrival of some species. Nevertheless, they are arriving, albeit slowly – bad weather or no bad weather! House sparrows have even started nesting. Some other birds, like the Mourning Dove, are pairing up for the nesting season. Even though one could hardly tell by the weather, spring is definitely here!
Since the last article, a few more species of birds have arrived. White Crowned Sparrows are here and can be heard singing all over town, if one knows what to listen for. The song is a rather pleasing three part affair starting with two (usually) short whistles followed by two sets of trills. It is best to see the bird singing; then memorize the tune. It is not that hard as it is rather catchy.
Close relatives of the Goldfinch, the Pine Siskins, are back in droves and are simply attacking our feeders. One can almost see the seed going down in the feeders. The Lincoln’s, White Throat and this week’s featured bird, the Harris’s sparrow, are not back as of this writing, but should be back by the time this goes to print.
The Harris’s Sparrow, our largest sparrow, is a transient that stops here for a few weeks in the spring and fall as it flies to and from its nesting grounds in the Boreal Forest. It is easily identified by its black throat, face and top of head. From this black facial mask protrudes its pale pink beak. I always get the impression that it was shot, head on, by a black paint ball. Once seen, it cannot be mistaken for anything else. Like all sparrow, males and females are the same. Its song is a rather long drawn out whistle in one pitch, followed by another whistle in the same pitch. Then it will usually whistle again, but this time in a lower pitch. Peterson describes it as an “overall minor effect”. I hear it every spring in town, and even with my limited musical talents, I can recognize the whistles as being minor. Musicians should enjoy listening to, and for it.
As striking as the Harris’s Sparrow is, it is still confused with other birds; sometimes while observed in the outdoors and sometimes from a bird book. One such bird is the House Sparrow. With its black bib, the House Sparrow does superficially resemble the Harris’s Sparrow, but the differences are readily noticeable. Similarly, the Harris’s Sparrow is confused with the Eurasian Tree Sparrow. The Tree and House Sparrows are closely related and very similar in appearance and habits. Even though both are introduced species, the Tree Sparrow has not spread far from the area of its original release near St. Louis in 1870. On the other hand the House sparrow has spread explosively across the Americas.
As with most sparrows, the Harris’s Sparrow likes to scratch in leaf litter to expose food. It is often seen in mixed flocks of White Throated, White Crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrows along with Pine Siskins and Goldfinches. The interesting thing to note is that the Harris’s Sparrow does not hesitate to bully other birds smaller than itself.
Along with other sparrows the handsome Harris’s Sparrow is almost certain to be in your back yard. Listen for it; look for it. You should not be disappointed.