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Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Harris' sparrow has local connections

Their migration track is quite narrow; a large percentage of the world’s population of Harris’ sparrows probably passes within 100 miles on either side of Grand Forks.

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Illustration by Mike Jacobs

The Harris’ sparrows that dropped in during last weekend’s snowstorm weren’t unexpected. In fact, these birds were playing out their special relationship with our part of the world.

The range of the Harris’ sparrow resembles an hourglass, with the birds nesting well to the north along the Arctic Coast of Canada, and wintering in a fan-shaped area to the south, from southeastern South Dakota to the southern Great Plains.

The birds migrate through the throat of the hourglass, which brings them through our area in both spring and fall. Their migration track is quite narrow; a large percentage of the world’s population of Harris’ sparrows probably passes within 100 miles on either side of Grand Forks.

At the right times of year, the Harris’ sparrow often is the most numerous species at the feeders at our place west of Gilby, N.D. During the storm, they were outnumbered only by dark-eyed juncos.

Harris’ is a large sparrow – the largest sparrow that is likely to be seen here. Generally, size isn’t a good field mark, but among feeder birds, the size difference makes Harris’ stand out. Sparrows characteristically forage on the ground, and a heavyset appearance helps pick out Harris’ from other birds feeding there.


Sometimes, it’s referred to as the chunkiest of sparrows. It also has a relatively long tail. The overall impression makes it stand out from the mass of ground-feeders, which at our place last week included dark-eyed juncos, white-crowned, white-throated, fox and song sparrows. That’s a good thing, because migrating Harris’ sparrows are hard to pin down as to plumage. In breeding plumage, the birds are unmistakable, with black feathers over the head, neck and upper breast, forming a kind of hood.

The birds go through a molt that extends into the migration season, and this leaves them looking mottled. Some birds display a lot of black on the head and back, and some display very little. Still, there’s usually a bit of black on the upper breast, which is otherwise clear. This is a reliable field mark. Otherwise, Harris’ sparrows tend to be lighter than other migrating sparrows, often showing gray, light brown and even ochre flushes in their plumage. Most other migrant sparrows are darker and more streaked – though there are some exceptions.

As it happens, the closest relatives of Harris’ sparrows are the most important exceptions. These are white-throated and white-crowned sparrows, which belong to the same genus, making them cousins, so to speak. Their names are descriptive. A quick look can be deceiving because both have some white on the head. This makes the throat a telling difference. White-crowned sparrows do not have white throats. These species can be distinguished by their songs, as well. Harris’ sparrows ordinarily do not sing away from the nesting grounds, but some migrating males begin their singing as they pass through our area, meaning their song is more heard in our area than anywhere else in the United States.

The song of Harris’ and white-throated sparrows are a bit similar, too. The white-throated sparrow has an appealing whistled song followed by a series of trills that is often rendered as “Oh! Sweet! Canada. Canada. Canada.” Harris’ sparrow has only the first two notes, but they sound remarkably similar to the whistles at the beginning of the white-throated sparrow’s song but without the trills at the end.

This runs counter to the sparrow’s range; Harris’ sparrow is the only bird species that nests exclusively in Canada. The scientific word for this is “endemic.” Harris’ sparrow is a Canadian endemic. Its nesting range runs roughly from the mouth of the Yukon Rver to the southern shore of Hudson Bay. This range trends southeastward toward the mouth of the Nelson River. The Nelson flows out of Lake Winnipeg, which is fed by the Red River. This drainage system appears to serve as the Harris’ sparrow’s major migration route. The birds winter as far south as southern Texas.

The species has still another connection to North Dakota, through three pioneering ornithologists who worked here. Thomas Nuttall’s roaming across North America included the Northern Plains, but he discovered the sparrow in Missouri in 1834. John James Audubon named the bird for Edward Harris, who joined him on a collecting trip up the Missouri River in 1843.

One last note: Authorities disagree about the proper spelling of the name of this species, some calling it Harris’s sparrow. The American Ornithological Union uses only the apostrophe.

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


Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs

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