Weather Forecast


ALWAYS IN SEASON: N.D. has an abundance of nesting sparrow species

Just about any patch of cover will have a sparrow. This includes backyards, ditches, field edges, shelterbelts, pastures, prairie and wetlands — but not deep woods.

Sparrows are classic “edge species,” moving between cover and open areas, and that is what we have provided in our backyards.

Fourteen sparrow species nest regularly in North Dakota. Among the most likely of these to be encountered are a couple of close relatives, the Spizella cousins. These are the chipping and clay-colored sparrows.

Chipping sparrows occur in foundation plantings; I’ve encountered them on the Herald property downtown and on the UND campus. They also nest on the Red River Greenway and, undoubtedly, in scores of back yards throughout the area.

They show up in my back yard near Gilby, N.D., too, but there the more common sparrow is clay-colored sparrow, another Spizella.

Still a third Spizella, the field sparrow, is uncommon in our area, but not unknown.

North Dakota has a fourth Spizella species, Brewer’s sparrow, which nests in the far southwestern counties.

Another member of the clan, American tree sparrow, is a migrant here, showing up in good numbers in early spring and late fall. Sometimes, they linger long enough to be found on the annual round of bird counts in late December.

A sixth member of the genus Spizella , the black-chinned sparrow, is not found in North Dakota.

Spizella is a descriptive name. It’s Latin for “little finch.”

Chipping sparrow is also a descriptive name. The birds are noisy and their call is a series of trilled chirps, quite distinctive. They could be called “red-capped sparrows.” They are easily identified by white breasts, which are unstreaked and unspotted, and by the red stripe through the top of their heads.

The clay-colored sparrow has an even more distinctive sound. It is very unbirdlike, rather resembling the buzzing of some insect. But it is the bird’s color that gives it its name. The clay-colored sparrow is a plain bird, brown overall, but with a distinctive gray patch on the back of its neck. It would be more aptly called “clay-collared sparrow.”

Clay-colored sparrows aren’t so likely to be found in built-up areas, although they do occur on the Red River Greenway. They are numerous in farmyards and field edges, however, and they may be the most common of the sparrows overall.

But maybe not.

Vesper sparrows, members of another genus, are abundant along roadsides. They’d aptly be called “ditch sparrows,” I think.

The vesper sparrow is named for its song, too, but not for the time of day at which it is supposed to sing. The trouble here is that vesper sparrows sing both morning and evening, and so they aren’t really offering vespers.

These are rather plain birds, but they do show two field marks, white outer tail feathers and a patch of chestnut on each shoulder. These last are difficult to see, but the tail feathers are obvious on retreating birds.

The song sparrow, on the other hand, is well named, both in Latin and English. Its Latin name is Melospiza melodia — which is a bit redundant, since it means “musical musical little finch.”

It is unquestionably the best singer in the sparrow family, though. Its song is loud and clear and delivered from an open perch, so the bird can be easily observed. The song sparrow is one of the streak-breasted sparrows, and the streaks come together in a central spot on the breast.

Song sparrows, too, can be found on the Red River Greenway, and I wouldn’t be surprised to come upon vesper sparrow there.

This year, I’ve had lark sparrows at my place, too. These are irregular in our area, occurring in some years but not in others. My experience is that they are more common farther west.

This is a clear-breasted sparrow — except for a prominent black spot at the middle of the breast. Lark sparrow also has a distinctively marked face and prominent white outer tail feathers.

Other nesting sparrows are birds of grasslands (grasshopper, Savannah and Baird’s) or wetlands (LeComte’s and Nelson’s sharp-tailed sparrow).

The 14th nesting sparrow, white-throated, has been recorded in the Turtle Mountains and may occur in the Pembina Hills, as well.

The best known sparrow, the house sparrow, is not a sparrow at all, but a member of an unrelated Old World family.

Jacobs is a retired publisher of the Herald. Reach him at