More than one sparrow

Harris’s Sparrow are great fun to watch under bird feeders as they vigorously and enthusiastically scratch for seeds. Photo by Doug Wurtz.

To loosely translate from Norwegian to English:

fri = free, lufts = air’s, liv = life

The English equivalent= Outdoor Life

Winter has returned to North Dakota and many of the bird species we know and recognize have fled to warmer climes. The Western Meadowlarks head south, some as far as Mexico. The Robins travel as far south as Guatemala to escape the snow and cold.

The ibises, the bitterns, the grebes and others have also long since departed for their winter homes.

The Ring-necked Pheasant isn’t supposed to be here at all. It is a native of Asia and was introduced to North America in the 1880s for recreational hunting. This hardy bird has adapted to our winter climate and can be found along roadside ditches scratching for spilled grain and weed seeds. The pheasant is always a welcome sight in winter, adding a little color to the otherwise drab landscape.

Another hardy bird that isn’t native to North Dakota is the common House Sparrow. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says: “The House Sparrow was introduced into Brooklyn, New York, in 1851. By 1900 it had spread to the Rocky Mountains. Two more introductions in the early 1870s, in San Francisco and Salt Lake City, aided the bird’s spread throughout the West. House Sparrows are now common across all of North America except Alaska and far northern Canada.”

The House Sparrow, along with the Robin and Western Meadowlark, is one of the mostly widely recognized species in North Dakota. Even non-birders can point out a sparrow, sometimes with some derogatory comments added. Sparrows can make a mess and seem to be everywhere.

What isn’t well known is the fact that the House Sparrow is only one of 23 species of sparrows found in North Dakota. (This list is sometimes expanded to 31 species, depending on how they are classified.) It is also the only sparrow that spends the entire year here.

Two other sparrow species, the Dark-eyed Junco and the American Tree Sparrow are here in the winter but then leave for their breeding grounds in Northern Canada and Alaska.

Fifteen of the sparrow species are found in North Dakota only in the summer: Song Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow (the smallest sparrow in North Dakota) and twelve others.

Rounding out the list of sparrows that can be found in North Dakota are those that are here only during their migration. This list of five species includes the Harris’s Sparrow.

The Harris’s Sparrow, pictured, is the largest of the sparrow family in North America. It’s also the only songbird that breeds only in the far northern reaches of Canada. They are great fun to watch under bird feeders as they vigorously and enthusiastically scratch for seeds. Ornithologists have determined that the “pecking order” of Harris’s Sparrows in based not on the age of the bird, but on the amount of black on its head. Of the 23 species, this is my favorite sparrow.

Set out a bird feeder for our sparrow friends. The House Sparrow will always be a visitor but if you watch closely, you may see some of the other 22 species. Regardless of the season, sparrows add some color and activity to our world.

Doug Wurtz grew up near Ryder and graduated from Minot State University. His retirement activities include nature photography as well as serving as a Certified Interpretive Guide for the State Historical Society of North Dakota. He is past president of the North Dakota archaeological Association. Doug and his wife, Linda, live in Bismarck.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *


Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today