Among the most familiar of all birds are the little brown ones that hop near our feet, searching for crumbs and seeds. Even most non-birders know that these unassuming creatures are called sparrows. They aren’t as colorful or charismatic as many other species of birds, but they are subtly beautiful and often diverse and abundant, so are worth a closer look!
|Sparrows frequent Bryant Park.|
|House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) distribution. Dark green = natural range, light green = introduced range.|
At first they can be difficult to distinguish. They are all small and brownish, with conical bills. The resemblance of our native sparrows to the House Sparrow is a great example of what’s known as convergent evolution: when unrelated creatures face similar selective pressures, they evolve similar characteristics. Dolphins resembling fish despite being mammals is a famous example. A streamlined body with fins is one of the best adaptive solutions to living & moving underwater (although there are entirely different evolutionary solutions, such as those of jellyfish or octopi).
In the case of sparrow-like birds, they are mostly ground-feeders that eat seeds. Their thick bills are stronger than those of nectar or insect-eaters, since seeds often have tough hulls. They generally are brownish in color to blend in with fallen leaves or dead grasses, and often have streaks to provide further camouflage, since the ground is a vulnerable place to be (not too many ground-dwelling birds are brightly colored).
|Sparrows congregate on seasonal mum displays.|
A good way to begin to pick out the native sparrow species is to spend some time in the morning or on your lunch break observing the sparrows in the park. The House Sparrows should be the most obvious & abundant species; if you are eating a scone or a sandwich, they will often gather near your feet or even hop on your table in search of crumbs. Study them to begin to discern the differences between the more colorful (relatively speaking) males and the nondescript, tan-colored females. Once you are thoroughly familiar with this species, you can begin to notice the native, migratory sparrows, which will more often be hopping around in the hedge rows and flower beds than under the tables (although sometimes they join the House Sparrows in search of bread crumbs).
In part II of this post, I will explore some of the more common native sparrow species that can be found in Bryant Park, and how to tell them apart.