ALWAYS IN SEASON: Good news and bad news about the sparrows

This is a good news and bad news kind of story. That is, it could be good news or bad news depending on how you look at it. The news is that more than two dozen species of sparrows occur in Grand Forks County, some of them very hard to tell apart...

Illustration by Mike Jacobs

This is a good news and bad news kind of story. That is, it could be good news or bad news depending on how you look at it.

The news is that more than two dozen species of sparrows occur in Grand Forks County, some of them very hard to tell apart.

That's good news if you enjoy identification challenges. It's bad news if you are impatient and easily frustrated.

The plentitude of sparrows is manageable, though, with a systematic approach. There are a couple of systems, including plumage details, habitat and season.

That last is the one we'll focus on today.


About half the sparrow species are present here in summer. Others are migrants or winter visitors.

The nesting species have habitat preferences; some are habitat specialists, limited to very specific situations. Others are more widespread.

The upshot is that only three species are really likely to be encountered by casual birders. Again, that's good news or bad news depending on your point of view.

Two more species are common but more difficult to come by.

The three sparrows to expect are song sparrow, chipping sparrow and clay-colored sparrow. The first of these presents no difficult identification problems. The others are closely related and could be confused-but a close look and a good listen instantly will pinpoint the species.

The song sparrow is a conspicuous part of local bird life. It is large for a sparrow, with a fairly long tail and a prominent spot at the center of its streaked breast. Males are enthusiastic singers, often pouring out notes from a prominent perch.

Song sparrows are widespread. I've seen them in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., and at an abandoned railroad siding in north-central Montana. They are common on the Red River Greenway in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. A pair nests in my backyard.

This is a complicated species for many reasons. Scientists recognize more than 30 subspecies. These range from big, dark birds that occur in Alaska's Aleutian Islands to the rusty brown birds that we expect here.


Every male song sparrow has his own song developed when the bird is young.

Song sparrow melodies are complex and have gotten a lot of attention from birders and bird experts.

Most of it is awed enthusiasm.

Here's an example from "Birds of the Great Plains," distributed by Lone Pine Publishing in Auburn, Wash.:

"The song sparrow's heavily streaked, low-key plumage doesn't prepare you for the male's symphonic song. This well-named sparrow is renowned for the complexity, rhythm and emotion of its springtime rhapsodies."

The chipping sparrow is probably the most numerous sparrow within the city of Grand Forks. In rural areas, the clay-colored sparrow is more frequent.

Close relatives, both of these species like low cover.

Chipping sparrows often occur in foundation plantings along buildings. For a number of years, a pair nested in evergreens in front of the Herald building downtown.


Clay-colored sparrows like brushy patches, such as those that occur at field margins.

These two are smaller and slimmer than the song sparrow, and both are clear-breasted in contrast to the song sparrow's heavy streaking. The chipping sparrow has a chestnut patch on the top of its head, the clay-colored sparrow has a gray wash on the back of its neck. It ought to have been named clay-collared sparrow.

The chipping sparrow is named for its call. The clay-colored sparrow has an insect-like buzz.

Two other sparrow species are common in open country.

The vesper sparrow is so often encountered along country roads that it is sometimes referred to as "the ditch sparrow." It shows white feathers at the edge of the tail when it flies, a pretty good field mark. Up close, vesper sparrows show a bit of rust on the shoulder.

The bad news is it's hard to get close to a vesper sparrow. This may be the most often overlooked of common nesting birds in our area. The savannah sparrow is common, too, in the right kind of habitat. This is a small and rather elusive sparrow, given to flight at any disturbance. The savannah is a streak-breasted sparrow. It often has a yellow line above the eye.

These five hardly exhaust the list of sparrows that might be encountered here in nesting season. The Grand Forks County checklist rates four more species as fairly common in summer, three as rare and two as occasional.

Click here to read more Always in Season!

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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