Recent spells of arctic weather have left many of our natural areas seemingly bereft of birdlife. Except for a crow here and a red-tailed hawk there, it appeared that most birds in the Barrington area had either flown away or were hanging around bird feeders.
But there is one songbird species that I have consistently encountered, even on walks on sub-0º days: the American tree sparrow (Spizellloides arborea). The tree sparrow is a species we see only in winter in this locale. It is a bird of the far north and only shows up in the Barrington area when serious winter weather has moved in.
It’s a species I’m always glad to see, as it inhabits the same landscapes that field, savannah, and song sparrows have vacated. While I frequently encounter tree sparrows in wide open fields and prairies, feasting on the seeds of Indian grass and other graminoids, I just as often will find them in thickets, especially in early morning, where they no doubt have roosted overnight.
The tree sparrow is a handsome species, medium-sized with a long tail and rounded head. It is one of the clear-breasted (as opposed to streaked-breasted) sparrows and has a central breast spot that is usually a definitive field mark. Other important features are its rusty red cap, rusty eye line, white wing bars, and striking back pattern. In some ways it looks to me like a chipping sparrow on steroids, though it conveys an impression of sturdy fitness, well suited to challenging winter weather, as opposed to the rather delicate nature suggested by the smaller chipping sparrow
Unlike what its name suggests, the American tree sparrow is not much a bird of trees. It nests on or near the ground in the far north, mostly on tundra, and forages for food on the ground or on plants near the ground. Often, when I’ve just about given up on seeing any songbirds on a cold winter walk, I’ll encounter a small flock of tree sparrows that were feasting on grasses and forbs right in front of me, but blending in completely with the tawny landscape. They usually do not fly far away and almost always I am able to get good, long looks at them through binoculars.
I recognize most local birds by their songs and calls. But I confess that the American tree sparrow’s vocalization eludes me. Partly it’s because the species rarely sings in our area, as it departs before breeding season has begun in earnest. And partly it’s because the call it emits in winter is an inconspicuous “tssseeet” that’s hard to pick up when you’re bundled in wool hat and hood. Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal in 1856, “That feeble cheep of the tree sparrow, like the tinkling of an icicle…, is probably a call to their mates, by which they keep together.” There is a longer call that the tree sparrow makes which I’ve heard only on tape and I am making a point to listen for and learn it on walks in the weeks ahead.
Deep winter is the time to see American tree sparrows. If you maintain feeders, you may well attract the species with millet and other seed. But more challenging – and rewarding, in my book – is to find them flocking and foraging in local areas such as Beese Park or in open fields in Lake and Cook Country forest preserves. Their bright, active, and often sudden appearance makes the effort to get outside on a cold winter day well worthwhile.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy. Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.