Monday, December 5, 2016

A Closer Look at Midtown's Sparrows: Part II

Over the last few years, we have cultivated a relationship with the NYC Audubon, resulting in biweekly Birding Tours of the park during migration. We've been delighted as our Audubon Guide Gabriel Willow teaches us about the avian life of NYC, and helps us spot some of these magnificent creatures up close. Now Gabriel shares his experiences in the park.

In a previous post, I introduced readers to sparrows, the “little brown jobs” that are ubiquitous in city parks worldwide, including Bryant Park.

The majority of these sparrows are the House Sparrow, a non-native species introduced from Europe. But we also have a number of native, migratory species of sparrow, which although they share a similar name and appearance to the House Sparrow, are unrelated.

At first they may all appear similar. One of the joys of bird-watching (or of any other extended practice of study really) is starting to see or hear with a new attentiveness, and realizing there is more to the world around us than previously perceived. So it is with sparrows: perhaps the most nondescript group of birds, which likely appear uniformly similar to the uninitiated (if they are even noticed at all), but with experience, suddenly one realizes there are numerous species, each distinctive in their own way. It’s exciting, and a good practice for generally noticing more details in our surroundings and everyday lives.

So, here is a quick guide to distinguishing some of these little brown birds.

We’ll start with the most common of all, the House Sparrow. This is the yardstick. You can expect to encounter them almost anywhere you go in the world, at least in areas with human settlement, so it’s good to be able to identify them and use them as a baseline bird to compare others to.

House Sparrows are about 6 inches long. They are highly social birds, usually found in flocks, often around hedges and shrubs. They nest in holes and crevasses in buildings, streetlights, and trees. They are typically tamer than our native sparrow species, having evolved alongside humans for millennia. A great way to observe them would be to head to Bryant Park on your lunch break; as soon as the sparrows spot you and your sandwich, they will likely gather round in search of crumbs.

Their shape differs from our native sparrows: House Sparrows have larger heads, shorter tails, and fuller chests and shorter legs, giving them a stockier, squatter appearance. The males are slightly more colorful than the females. Notice the varied shades of brown and the subtle patterns. The most distinctive markings shared by both males and females are a pair of pale tan stripes, bordered by black, running down their backs, which look like suspenders. They also generally show a bright white wing-bar.

The male House Sparrow typically has a gray crown and underparts, rusty-brown wings, and a rusty stripe behind the eye, as well as a dark mask through the eye and a black throat. The female is nondescript clay-brown in color, with a pale stripe behind the eye. The bill color varies from black (breeding season male) to yellowish (female).

Photo: Creative Commons by Deanne Fortnam.
Perhaps the key “field mark” to identify these birds is not their color or pattern, but their frequent proximity to a scone or bagel!

Ok, so hopefully now you’ve spent some time observing the homely House Sparrow. It’s time to try to spot some of our native, migratory sparrows! They tend to be a bit less bold than the House Sparrows, not having the advantage of thousands of years of co-evolution with humans and cities. In fact, it’s possible that some of the White-throated, Song, or Chipping Sparrows that can be found in Bryant Park during the fall and winter months may have never encountered a human or city before migrating south from the potentially remote, rural land of their birth!

So, our native sparrows are often more reclusive than the House Sparrow. In Bryant Park, they often congregate in the hedgerows on either side of the lawn (or now skating rink), or in the boxwood and yew shrubs in the corners of the park. Sometimes they venture out with their urban brethren to hop under chairs & benches and peck at crumbs however.

Most of our native sparrows are lankier than the House Sparrows, with longer tails, more delicate bills, and longer legs. They are often more boldly striped or spotted as well. They tend to scratch in grass, gravel, or leaf-litter, hopping with both feet and kicking to uncover insects or seeds.

This time of year, the most abundant species by far is the White-throated Sparrow. In fact, they may even outnumber the House Sparrows, although that is hard to ascertain, as they are more skulking in nature. They congregate in loose flocks in the undergrowth, scratching noisily in fallen leaves and calling to one another. Sometimes you may hear their cheerful whistled songs.  They remind me of chipmunks, with their penchant for woodland undergrowth and boldly striped heads.

Their head-stripes are the most distinctive thing about them, along with their namesake white throat-patch. They have bold alternating light and dark stripes down the crown and through the eye. A subtle but distinctive trait is a small yellow spot in front of their eye.

Photo: Creative Commons by Henry T. McLin.
Another fairly common sparrow in Bryant Park is the Song Sparrow. Although it is named for its song, it rarely sings during the fall and winter months that it occurs in Bryant Park. The Song Sparrow stands out with its boldly streaky appearance: its back and belly are both heavily streaked with brown, as if colored with a dark crayon. The streaks on its breast converge into a large spot right in the center.

Photo: Creative Commons by Eric Begin.
A third species that can be found in the park (in small numbers) is the Swamp Sparrow. As its name indicates, it is generally a wetland bird, but one of the wonders of Bryant Park is how unexpected species regularly call it home during migration. The Swamp Sparrow is closely related to the Song Sparrow, but is smaller, shorter-tailed, and more skulking.  The most distinctive thing about it is its overall rich rusty-brown coloration, with little streaking. The head is a contrasting cool blue-gray.  It’s quite a handsome bird if you can catch a glimpse of it!

Photo: Creative Commons by Tom Benson.
A final and distinctive sparrow species that can be found during the late fall and winter months in Bryant Park is the Dark-eyed Junco. Unlike the other sparrows, it is mostly gray rather than brown, and has no streaking. It has a contrasting white belly, and a bubblegum-pink beak. The males are a slate-gray color, and the females are more brownish-gray. They occur in small flocks, scratching in leaf-litter in search of seeds.

Photo: Creative Commons by Henry T. McLin.
There are several other species of sparrow that have been seen in Bryant Park (13 species of native sparrow to date, plus the ever-present House Sparrow of course!). Providing a guide to identifying all of them is beyond the scope of this blog post, but please go to the park and see what you can find! If you sit quietly on a park bench, they will often become accustomed to your presence, and you can observe them closely without even needing binoculars. Observing the subtle differences between these easily overlooked creatures can be almost meditative, and is a great way to hone ones’ powers of observation.

The Bryant Park bird tours have wrapped up for the season, but there’s still much to observe! The tours will return in April; I hope to see many of you then.

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