Our next two sparrows are not streaky as adults, and only faintly streaky as young birds.  They’re both notable for their head markings, which make them pretty easy to tell, but both come in two “flavors”, one of which can be a little confusing at first.  We’ll start with the easy one, which is usually one of the most common winter feeder sparrows in the east (other than that ubiquitous pest, the House Sparrow.  Here’s a House Sparrow male and a female – remember her, especially!)

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Now back to the actual subjects of this post.  Our first bird is probably familiar to anyone, city or country, who has a bird feeder and some bushes or a hedge in the back yard.  They’re ground-feeding birds, who do a lot of scratching around in the leaves and under feeders, gleaning seeds mainly.  The normal call is a thin, high-pitched, fairly loud “Seet!”, and the song (usually heard in April and May before they head back north for the summer) is a plaintive whistled “”Oh, sweet, sweet, Can-a-da, Can-a-da, Can-a-da”, unlike any of the other birds we have in the mid-Atlantic.  This is the White-throated Sparrow, and is easily told by the bold black-and-white stripes on the head, with bright yellow lores above and in front of the eyes, a reddish color on the back, and a nice white throat.  Well one type does, anyway.  The other type has duller head stripes, duller lores and a browner appearance.  The big, tannish stripe over the eye frequently even looks kind of teardrop-shaped instead of narrowing to the front like the bright-striped version.  These are both White-throats, but they behave, as well as look, differently – for the short version, see this: http://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news/story/11424/20140904/variety-matters-among-white-throated-sparrows

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The second sparrow of this pair is a lot less common.  I generally see them more often moving north in the spring; late February and through March seem to be the best times to see these birds at the feeder or in scrubby woods.  When you see them, you tend to notice two things – they have a very gray appearance, especially the head and neck, and they often crane up, showing a more vertical stance than the normally hunched-over White-throated Sparrows.  The head stripes on the White-crowned Sparrow  are noticeably different from White-throats, as well, with the broad white stripe on the top of the head being the most obvious difference.  The straight white eye stripes have no trace of yellow lores, as well.  If you see the back of the head, the side stripes and the top stripe actually cross, in the birds we get around here, making a white +.

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This is for the adult, though – when you first encounter a juvenile, many of us get confused, because it is quite different in some important ways.   First of all, the head stripes are different – instead of that nice, striking black-and-white pattern, young White-crowns look like they have a reddish horseshoe around the front of the head.

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Add in that stripe through the eye, and quite a few of us try to turn this into a Chipping Sparrow or even a Tree Sparrow.  However, there are a couple of things to look for – the craning behavior that makes them stand tall, the hint of a crest at the back of the head (not always visible, of course), and my favorite – the double row of white spots on the wing.  This almost always stands out, and is a good mark to help put you on the right track even if you can’t see the buffy crown stripe.