Harris' Sparrow

Fall and spring migration is a time of the year I always look forward to. This is when we begin to see many of our winter birds beginning to arrive or prepare to depart. And one bird that is always exciting to see during migration  is the Harris’s Sparrow. This is truly a bird that the Central Great Plains can lay claim to as one of our indigenous fall and winter species. Although they breed along the edge of the Boreal forests and tundra in the upper reaches of north-central Canada, they winter from the South Dakota to Southern Texas. Rarely are they found east or west of middle North America.  Their eastern range is extends to roughly Interstate #35 in Iowa, and to the west not much beyond the Nebraska border into Colorado and Wyoming, except during migration. In Nebraska they winter in the eastern quarter of the state and south-central counties, down into Kansas, Oklahoma, and Eastern Texas.

The Harris’ Sparrow is very striking in its appearance. It has a black bib, forehead, crown, and nape. The back is brown with black stripes and the under parts are white with some streaks along the sides. It also sports two white wing bars and a pink bill. Both the male and female are similar in appearance with the exception that the male is blacker on the throat in the fall and winter. The Harris’s Sparrow is rather large compared to most other sparrows, measuring 7 to 8 inches in length with an 11 inch wingspan.

The Harris’s Sparrow, which is the only bird species that breeds in Canada and nowhere else in the world, nests in extremely remote areas.  Because of its remote and restricted breeding grounds, the Harris's Sparrow was one of the last North American species to have its nest discovered. Nesting observations were first made at Churchill, Manitoba in 1931.

In the spring the male establishes a nesting territory which he will defend and attracts a mate by singing. The male and female Harris’s Sparrows generally arrive on the breeding grounds at the same time, and monogamous pairs form soon after their arrival.

The female builds the nest which is located in a small depression of moss and lichen on the ground, hidden under a birch, alder, spruce, or other shrub or small tree.  The nest is an open cup of mosses, small twigs, and lichens, lined with dried grass and often some caribou hair.  She will then lay 4 to 5 pale green eggs with irregular spots and blotches. The female begins incubation which lasts for 12-14 days. After the eggs hatch both parents help feed the young. The chicks will leave the nest 8-10 days later and the parents continue to feed them for about two weeks. The young cannot fly when they fledge, but start to fly short distances about four days after fledging.

Harris's Sparrows begin to form flocks in late Canadian summer before they begin their migration south. They will flock together with other sparrows and sometimes Dark-eyed Juncos. Harris's Sparrows begin to leave the nesting area by early September and travel slowly to their wintering grounds arriving in October. They begin moving north toward their breeding grounds at the end of February, but the bulk of the population doesn't arrive on the breeding grounds until late April or early May.

Foraging for food primarily on the ground, the Harris’s Sparrow’s diet consists of seeds, fruits, arthropods, and young conifer needles. While wintering in the Plains states they will feed on seeds or scratch through leaf litter looking for insects and larvae.

They are commonly seen scratching for seeds on the ground under bird feeders in both urban and rural areas during the fall and winter. In their winter flocks, the Harris’s Sparrow maintains a specific pecking order which determines access to food and roosting sites. The most dominant birds are the oldest males, and they also have the largest black bibs. However, if birds during their first winter have their feathers dyed black, creating an artificially large bib, they rise in the dominance hierarchy.

They are commonly seen scratching for seeds on the ground under bird feeders in both urban and rural areas during the fall and winter. In their winter flocks, the Harris’s Sparrow maintains a specific pecking order which determines access to food and roosting sites. The most dominant birds are the oldest males, and they also have the largest black bibs. However, if birds during their first winter have their feathers dyed black, creating an artificially large bib, they rise in the dominance hierarchy.

Keep your eyes open for this delightful bird who will undoubtedly be visiting many backyards during the late winter and early spring months across the Great Plains of North America.

Identifying Harris’ Sparrow

·         Length: 7 inches

·         Pink, conical bill

·         Black patch around base of bill from crown onto breast

·         Gray face in summer, tan in winter

·         White under parts with streaked sides

·         Tan back with dark streaks

·         Brown wings with wing bars

·         Long tail

·         Sexes similar

·         Immature plumage (Fall and Winter) similar to adult but has white throat and black flecked crown

·         Juvenile plumage (Summer) similar to immature but has streakier breast

Adults are very distinctive with their bold face pattern. Juveniles and immature birds can be identified by their pink bills, streaked sides and blackish crowns.

How the Harris’s Sparrow Got Its Name:

The Harris’s Sparrow came by its name during the fall of 1843. Edward Harris, a son of a wealthy farmer and exporter, grew up near Philadelphia and met John James Audubon in 1824. He immediately became an admirer and supporter of the naturalist Audutrip along the Gulf of Mexico and the 1843 trip up the Missouri River to the Yellowstone.  bon. They became close friends and Harris accompanied Audubon on two major expeditions:  the 1837 trip along the Gulf of Mexico and the 1843 trip up the Missouri River to the Yellowstone.  On the Missouri River trip, near what is present day Omaha and Council Bluffs, Harris shot a specimen which had not previously been seen by Audubon.  Mr. Audubon gave this bird the Latin name Zonotrichia querula, and in honor of Edward Harris, gave it the common name Harris’s Sparrow.

 

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