Dark-eyed juncos were the most numerous birds in our backyard west of Gilby, N.D., last week, but now they have company. Harris’ sparrows dropped in early this week, and their numbers have been growing.

Harris’ sparrows and dark-eyed juncos have several things in common. They are both members of the finch family, one of the bird world’s largest. Like other finches, they are seed eaters. Both species are ground feeders, and both nest farther to the north.

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The Harris’ sparrow nests beyond the tree line, and so it has a more restricted range along the Arctic coast of Canada. It winters in a fan-shaped area from southeastern South Dakota to the southern Great Plains.

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The Red River Valley lies between these areas, and it serves as a kind of funnel for migrating Harris’s sparrows. Their southbound path is rather like an hourglass, with our area the narrowest part. That means a large proportion of the world’s population of Harris’ sparrows passes through our area each spring and fall.

The birds present different plumage in spring and fall. Spring males are black across the head and upper breast. This has been likened to a monk’s hood.

Fall birds are more plain, but most of them show at least some black on the head and breast. For the rest, the Harris’ sparrow is a montage of gray, brown and ochre tones. This makes Harris’ among the most easily recognizable of the sparrows.

Its size helps. Harris’ sparrow is the largest of the sparrows. This is evident when Harris’ is feeding with juncos. It appears nearly twice as large.

Unlike the Harris’ sparrow, which has this special connection to the Red River Valley, the junco is a harbinger of winter across the continent. Last week, I quoted John James Audubon, who declared that every American was familiar with the “snow bird,” the name he used for what we call the junco.

Audubon knew Harris’ sparrow, too. He encountered it on his 1843 expedition to Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone River. This lies just inside North Dakota’s western border. Audubon named this sparrow for Edward Harris, who was along on the Yellowstone Expedition.

Neither Harris nor Audubon discovered the species, however. That discovery is credited to Thomas Nutall, another traveling naturalist. Nuttall wandered more widely across North America than Audubon himself, reaching the Pacific Coast, while Audubon got no farther west than extreme eastern Montana. A number of species are named for Nuttall, including what we commonly call the yellow violet – an appropriate name, even if it contains a remarkable contradiction. Nuttall found Harris’ sparrow in Missouri, within the winter range of this species.

Harris’ sparrows have a distinctive call that starts out like a white-throated sparrow’s song, but ends before the distinctive trill at the end of the white-throated’s song. For the most part, the sparrows are silent outside of courtship season, so we’re unlikely to hear this call at this time of year. Like other bird species, they have a variety of chipping calls that they use to contact other birds, a habit that helps keep flocks together.

The appearance of Harris’ sparrows provides evidence that the birds move primarily in response to the duration of daylight and not only incidentally to weather conditions.

As evidence, I submit the Harris’ sparrow’s last appearance as bird of the week. That was Oct. 20, 2019 – a few days after an early snowstorm dumped more than a foot of snow at our place, blocking roads and bringing down tree limbs that I have only now finished moving.

Manitoba has a special connection to Harris’ sparrows, as well. The first of Harris’ sparrows were found near Churchill in 1900. It wasn’t until 1930 that a nest with eggs was found, also near Churchill.

Those birds almost certainly passed through the Red River Valley to pass the winter, just as their descendants have stopped off here to refuel before moving farther south.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs