Chipping Sparrows and Scheming Dark-eyed Juncos

At 7:45 this morning, it was cold, clear and windy, with a silky blue sky and traces of high white clouds, all that were left of the dark clouds and rain of the past few days. A thin crust of ice topped the birdbaths. Three Chipping Sparrows sat on the block feeder in the front yard, eating seeds – and dozens of other Chipping Sparrows seemed to be everywhere – in the bushes, in the grass, in low limbs, and chasing each other here and there. The tall bare limbs of the river birches were dotted with little birds, a few Yellow-rumped Warblers and a couple of Bluebirds, but mostly Chipping Sparrows.

A Pine Warbler sang, and after standing for a few minutes on the front porch watching sparrows, I realized I was also hearing the bright, clear whistle of a Cardinal’s song, the first one I’ve heard since the start of winter. Chickadees, Titmice, House Finches and Carolina Wrens also are singing now, which sounds like a lot, but for the most part they’re sort of spaced out, and each song still sounds distinct against a background of prevailing quiet, quite different from the exuberant jumble of songs all together that will come in the spring.

A Downy Woodpecker, a Carolina Wren, Chickadees and Titmice shared the feeders with the Chipping Sparrows, and a half dozen Dark-eyed Juncos foraged for seeds in the dry leaves below. Although they’re said to be a very common feeder bird, I rarely see one on our feeders. They usually forage on the ground underneath with White-throated Sparrows, Cardinals and Mourning Doves.

I watched the Juncos for a while, trying to figure out why they remind me of Wallace and Gromit’s sneaky penguin, Feathers McGraw. There’s something about the dark, round gray head and hood, dark eyes, white belly, and pink beak, and also something about they way they move, a little shifty, maybe scheming. They always seem to be looking around to see if some other bird has found a better spot than they have. A Junco pecks at the ground half-heartedly, looks up – and scurries over to see what another Junco has found – only to be disappointed most of the time.

Chipping Sparrows don’t come often to our feeders every year until around this time – late January or early February. Until then, they’re scattered out through the neighborhood in small flocks, feeding in yards and along the roadside, and bursting up in scattering flight when startled. When they do start coming to the feeders, they usually come only two or three at a time, and they don’t come and go quickly. They stay sitting placidly, eating, resting, looking around, and eating.

Handsome little birds, with clear gray breast, brown-streaked back and wings, and chestnut-red crown, their personalities are an intriguing mix of calm and flighty, solitary and social, open and secretive, common and little-noticed. At home in open woodlands and around the edges of forests, they also thrive in suburban habitats and are common residents of yards and gardens.

3 Responses to “Chipping Sparrows and Scheming Dark-eyed Juncos”

  1. Nancy Ortiz says:

    I’m wondering if your thrashers have been present continuously. Mine disappeared in November along with the catbirds and towhees. Pls advise, as I used to say before retiring. We have chipping sparrows every year from December to about the middle of February. Your location is super for birding. Mine is historic. What can I say? I get a few gems every once in a while but otherwise just the same old guys all the time.

  2. Sigrid Sanders says:

    Yes, Brown Thrashers are residents here, and we have had at least one pair in our yard year-round, and many in the neighborhood. They’re quiet and shy right now, but in the early spring will start singing. Thanks for your interest!

  3. Nancy Ortiz says:

    A goldfinch showed up yesterday–the first one in two years! I told you times were tough for feeder birders here. Also, heard a towhee this morning–the first since November. I’m encouraged, but am curbing my enthusiasm. Any suggestions for what to feed the towhees? My thrashers will eat meal worms and raisins. What do you see the towhees chowing down on?

Leave a Reply