Friday, December 11, 2009

At least the towhees are towhees.

I'm settling comfortably into my winter schedule; in the morning, first thing, I take the birdbath outside and fill it with tepid water, which will be cold by the time the first birds find it. Then I check the chickadee feeder and the suet holder, fill them if necessary. I throw a few handfuls of seeds under and near the shrubbery for the ground birds, adding a small pile of Zick dough. In the evening, I dump the ice out of the birdbath and bring it inside for the night. That's easier than chipping ice in the morning.

The birds respond: the chickadees come and go constantly, morning till dark, a small flock of juncos hops here and there. A robin or two drop in, get a bite, and leave, but a few towhees hide in the evergreens and dash over for a snack whenever they figure the coast is clear. And there are sparrows, the little white-crowned and a pair of big ones, the occasional house finch, and rarely, a Steller's jay or a crow. I'm hoping for bushtits any day now, swarming around the suet basket.

I forgot the other essential; polishing the glass doors, inside and out. I spent a fair portion of yesterday afternoon taking photos of the birds. Then I deleted most of them; with flash, the dust on the glass hid everything outside. Without, the light was too low to capture quick-moving birds. And with the door open, all the birds left.

These are the few photos I kept:

Sparrow, fox?
Update: see comments. Song.

I thought this was a fox sparrow: it's a large sparrow, half-way between the towhee and the robin that were hanging around, with the streaky breast and the big black spot in the centre. But the description on the Audubon Society Bird Web, includes,
"The head is not striped or streaked, the face is plain, and the lower mandible is yellow."
Now I'm confused. The lower mandible is yellow:

Sparrow #2. Blurry photo, but with the yellow lower bill showing clearly. Fox.

And the head of this one is not streaked. But its mate ...

Side view of sparrow #1. Just a hint of yellow. Song. See comments.

... is definitely streaky. Other sparrows with a two-toned bill are the tree sparrows, but they have no streaks on the breast, and a solid chestnut cap.

A couple of days ago, I was reading, on a blog I can't find now, about how easy it is to distinguish sparrows. I had my doubts. Now they're stronger. Do sparrows hybridize, like mallards?

Corey, on 10,000 Birds has a helpful post, with good photos. I notice that his Fox Sparrow has a stripy head.

I give up! Uncle!

Here's one of the pair demonstrating feeding technique:


Every time it dips to pick up a seed, it also flaps its wings, almost too fast to see. Under the shrubbery, it scratches for food, chicken-style, then pecks and flaps. Head down, tail up, return, all in a split second.

And this is a sparrow by another name:

Spotted towhee. Easy to identify. But very shy.


  1. We have a starling roost in a copse near our house - about 3 million roost there each evening in a good year.

    But sparrows seem fewer and fewer in the garden - the crows chase them away. And the other week a hen harrier arrived, so all stayed in the trees.

  2. Hi Susannah. I think you have two different species of sparrow there. The second and fourth photos (the bird you identify as Sparrow #2) appears to be a Fox Sparrow. The one in photos 1 and 3 looks like a Song Sparrow to me.

  3. Hi Susannah - I agree with Clare. You've definitely got a song sparrow and a fox sparrow. The streaky breast compared (SOSP) with the spotty breast (FOSP) and the bill shapes are quite different - thinner (SOSP) and chunky (FOSP). Nice that you've got a Fox Sparrows!

    I'm trying to get some good shots through the glass as well - I took the screen off the kitchen window so I could crack it open but it's been too cold to leave it open very long.

    Happy bird watching!

  4. Thanks, Clare and Dave. I guess I shouldn't assume that because two sparrows arrive together, that they are the same species. The thin vs. chunky bill shapes will be a good clue to watch for.

    Mark, 3 million starlings! I can't even imagine that!

  5. Sparrows are the hardest birds for me to id. I bought a heated birdbath and I think the birds really appreciate it too.

  6. Wish we had those sorts of sparrows around our feeders at the winter. :) To add to what Clare and Dave said, the breast streaking of the Song Sparrow looks like someone dragged a paintbrush over wet watercolour paper, whereas the streaking on the Fox Sparrow looks more like chain-linked spots.

  7. Seabrooke, That's an easy to remember clue: Paintbrush - Song; Fences - Fox.


  8. We broke down and bought a heated bird bath/watering trough. Sometimes a deer walks by and drains it!!!

  9. Nice photos, that towhee is beautiful. We don't have many sparrows in Panama

  10. Hi, Jan and Gloriela; Glad you found my blog; it gave me a chance to find yours. Great birding blog! I've added it to my reader.

  11. I am just in the middle of doing a blog post, and was going through my book, trying to identify a sparrow. Still confused, I did a google search, and came to your post:) That makes me smile. I'm so pleased I'm not the only one finding identification challenging. Mine is the same as your first one, so I'll call it a song sparrow.


If your comment is on a post older than a week, it will be held for moderation. Sorry about that, but spammers seem to love old posts!

Also, I have word verification on, because I found out that not only do I get spam without it, but it gets passed on to anyone commenting in that thread. Not cool!