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ALWAYS IN SEASON/ Mike Jacobs: Harbingers of winter show up here

The American tree sparrow is misnamed and misplaced. It is an American bird, sure enough, and it is a sparrow.

But the American tree sparrow has little to do with trees or forests. Instead, it is a denizen of scrub growth and especially of weedy patches. The tree sparrow eats a lot of weed seeds.

One other thing is certain about this sparrow. In our area, it is closely associated with winter; not with the season itself, but with its arrival and departure.

This is a bird of the Arctic, nesting from Labrador and the southern shore of Hudson Bay to the Pacific coast of Alaska. The southern limit of nesting tree sparrows is about at the northern boundary of Manitoba. Everywhere south of that line — 60 degrees north latitude — the tree sparrow is a migrant.

Although the tree sparrow is tiny, it is a hardy bird. Its winter range extends into Canada's prairie provinces and includes much of North Dakota and Minnesota. Tree sparrows show up on most local Christmas bird counts.

Still, the bird is most closely associated with seasons of transition. It appears in late fall and in early spring, so I regard it as a harbinger of both seasons.

The American tree sparrow is a close relative of the chipping sparrow, a familiar nesting bird in our area. The two are much alike in size, shape and manners.

Both are small, long-tailed birds. A vivid imagination could suggest they resemble tablespoons, rounded in front and narrow to the rear. These species both have red crowns. There is an important difference between them that clinches identification. The tree sparrow has a spot at the center of its breast, and the chipping sparrow lacks this entirely.

The American tree sparrow is similar to another close relative, the European tree sparrow. European settlers gave the American bird the same name as its European relative. The mistake occurs in the scientific name, as well. The American tree sparrow is Spizella arborea, which means, roughly, "little finch of the woods."

My encounter with American tree sparrows occurred along a trail in the Turtle Mountains. The trail cut provided the kind of habitat a tree sparrow likes—a shrubby margin rather than a deep forest.

Tree sparrows are regular here, although they are seldom abundant. Watch for them along the Red River Greenway, in overgrown gardens, at field edges, near the margins of shelterbelts and in brush patches.

My first tree sparrow of the season was alone — and that's how I generally encounter them. At best, a group of tree sparrows gives each member individual space. They're not flocking birds, as some other finches are — siskins and redpolls, for example.

Last week brought an influx of redpolls, as well. On my nightly walk-around of our property near Gilby, N.D., I came upon a group of 10 or so common redpolls. They were extraordinarily tame, suggesting they had just arrived from their northern breeding grounds, where they seldom encounter humans and so have nothing to fear from us.

The redpolls are among a group of northern finches that sometimes show up in big numbers here. Two other of these finches, dark-eyed junco and pine siskin, have been abundant in our yard this year. The fact that juncos have joined them suggests — but doesn't insure — that this will be an "irruption year," one that brings more than usual numbers of northern birds southward.

The finches are not the only northern birds arriving in our area. A week ago today, I watched rough-legged hawks moving south along a ridge line in central North Dakota.

This is the "November hawk."

The rough-legged hawk is another Arctic species. These hawks show up in our area in late fall and hang around until snow cover makes aerial hunting difficult. Then they move south.

Thus, the harbingers of winter have arrived — save one. So far, I haven't seen a snowy owl.

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