Three (well, four) more birds to look at today, but calling them “sparrows” is a little confusing!  One is a Real Sparrow, one is a sparrow but doesn’t have the word “sparrow” in its name, one is called a sparrow, but isn’t related to our North American sparrows, and one is a small grosbeak-ish bird that looks like a sparrow.  Got it?  That was easy, wasn’t it!  Let’s start with the simple one – the Dark-eyed Junco.  This very neat little winter sparrow here in the mid-Atlantic used to be four different sparrows scattered across the continent until the “lumpers” got at it.  Now, the Oregon and Slate-colored and White-winged and Gray-headed Juncos are just regional variations of the Dark-eyed Junco.  Luckily, around here, the one we’re almost always going to have is the ‘Slate-colored’ form, which is a little variable, but very easy to identify.  If you took an egg and dipped it about 3/4 deep in black dye, then stuck legs, wings, tail and a head on it, you’d have a Junco.  Well, a male one, anyway.  Females are browner and often look two-toned, at that, with a grayish head and brownish back.  There is a fair bit of variation, especially among females – I’ve seen some that had a definite pinkish tone to the sides, almost looking like little, rotund Towhees.

junco1 junco2

When these birds fly zippily up from the ground, they’ll often give a buzzy twittery trill, and flash their white outer tail feathers.  You really can’t mistake them for anything else, although it’s possible to identify a straggling ‘Oregon’ among them if you try _really_ hard.  Tip – it won’t be…  but it might!

The second, the Real Sparrow, is one that often gives new birders fits – it sort of looks like about half-a-dozen different other sparrows, although it turns out none of them have the collection of characteristics that this one does.  Here are some photos:

swamp1 swamp2 swamp3 swamp4

Nice, isn’t it?  It looks like what you’d get if you crossed a Chipping, Lincoln’s and White-throated Sparrow, and maybe tossed in a couple others just for fun.  The things to look for here are the reddish wings and cap, House Sparrow-like back streaking, whitish throat and gray, sort-of-Lincoln’s face.  The malar space is usually light-colored, though, and even if there are streaks on this bird, they’re usually very faint, and generally just on the flanks, so it’s clearly not a Lincoln’s (right, Vizzini?)

vizzini “Clearly!”

Oh, yes – this is a Swamp Sparrow. which is often found in woody areas near water in the summer, but may be in brushy, wooded areas away from water in the winter.

Speaking of House Sparrows, which are not related to our North American sparrows, the one to look at closely is the female.  Remember the male has that nice charcoal bald patch above his mahogany hair

housem , while the female housef is simply a plain-looking bird with a strong, light eye-stripe and a heavy bill.  These birds are interesting to watch – although they’re really annoying pests.  At my feeders, they’re able to feed at the normal feeders, but also manage to eat at the thistle feeders and the suet feeders as well.  Furthermore, at the regular feeders, they constantly shovel seed out onto the ground with sideways swipes of the bill, and can empty a feeder in no time flat.  That’s good for the ground-feeding birds (which they are as well), but not so good for your budget.  It also makes any local rats very happy.  They’re pretty aggressive, and can hold their own against most birds smaller than a Cardinal.  The only good thing about them is that they’re late to rise, and early to bed, which gives the more desirable birds a clear hour or so at the feeders when the House Sparrows aren’t hogging them.  Anyway, take a close look at the female (something that most feeder-watchers should do in the winter).  Notice that the eyestripe and overall look is pretty buffy, right?  Now take a look at this:

dick1 dick2 dick3

What’s the difference?

Mainly the yellow tinge in the eyestripe, the malar area and perhaps on the breast.  The dark moustache line down from the bill can also be a good thing to look for.  The male version of this bird looks like this in the summer:

dick4

and although it’s far less commonly found nesting here on the east coast than it once was, it can still be found in scattered locations.  Winter birds may turn up at feeders, and may associate with House Sparrows – the males will be more yellow, and generally have the remains of that black bib, but the females can be confusing.  It doesn’t hurt to check out the female House Sparrows from time to time, and if you see one that looks and acts just a bit different, and has a yellow tinge here and there, you’ve spotted a Dickcissel!  Dickcissels are not actually sparrows, but since they look like House Sparrows, they get included here.