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The sparrows bout with mistaken identity

Talk to some people about birds and their eyes start to glaze over after a time. This is right before they look at their watch and mumble something about a forgotten appointment. Mention sparrows and even more folks will roll their eyes. The sparrows, as a group, do not engender the type of warm fuzzies the public seems to have for robins or bluebirds or even loons. In fact, I consistently hear the phrase, its just a sparrow, from many people. What most dont realize is that this group of finches we call sparrows are quite a diverse and fascinating lot, with more than 20 different species either nesting in North Dakota or migrating through. None may be more interesting than the White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis).

The White-throat is a rather large, pink-legged sparrow and is currently scratching around the ground under just about any bird feeder in town. I say scratching because that is exactly what they do. A scratch feeder will hop up, thrust its feet forward, and then draw them back toward itself before landing again. Its a technique developed by a few bird species to allow them to turn over leaves and debris in search of food.

These birds show up in early September from breeding grounds across Canada and the far northern United States (they nest in this state only in the Turtle Mountains and the Pembina gorge). Theyll leave our area about the middle of November to winter in the southern half of the country. April marks the month of their spring return and they have moved on north normally by the end of May.

If one is into listening to bird songs, few are more distinct than this birds. Its a drawn out, clear whistle starting low and ending with a few high notes, or it can be reversed. Mnemonics have been around for a long time to describe the song: Old Sam Peabody is one and Oh, sweet Canada is another. Once heard, however, its hard to forget. Moreover, both the male and the female sing the song, which is rather strange.

White-throated Sparrows are represented by two similar, yet distinct, color forms (called morphs) --both occurring with equal frequency and determined by genetics. Its a system unique among birds. The white-striped morph is recognized by its black and white striped head, bright yellow headlights, or spots, forward of the eyes, and a pure white throat bordered with black. Where the white-striped morph is bold, the tan-striped one is much more muted with tan and brown stripes on the head. What the two color forms share is a whitish belly, a fairly long tail, and brown wings with two white wingbars.

Once on the breeding ground things get a little weird. It seems individuals almost always mate with birds of the opposite color morph.

Why this is so is the subject of some debate and nothing but speculation has emerged from research thus far. They do know that both colors of males prefer the white-striped females, while both females prefer the tan-striped males. What we end up with is a 50/50 mix of color schemes when they arrive at our feeders in the fall. Did I mention it was a little weird?

The White-throated Sparrow is but one representative of this large and somewhat overlooked group. Part of the problem, I suspect, is the confusion with House Sparrows, which are not sparrows at all but one of the Old World weaver finches. Nonetheless, this bird that eats French fries from the McDonalds parking lot and builds nests behind the Wal-Mart sign has come to represent sparrows in the minds of most people. This is unfortunate because it gives sparrows a bad reputation.

So let the White-throated Sparrow be your introduction into the real world of sparrows. Maybe your eyes wont glaze over quite so fast.