Winter Sparrow Visitors Provide Learning Opportunities

Four days ago I glanced out of the window next to my computer and was surprised to see a Harris’s Sparrow foraging under my seed feeder.


Harris’s Sparrow

While every winter I see one that has strayed west to central New Mexico, they are rare. This is the first time I have been blessed with a visit.

Since it nests in a narrow area of forest-tundra in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories and generally spends the winter in the central plains, the occasional visit to New Mexico in the winter has been my only opportunity to see them, but never long enough to study their behavior.

According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of North America Online, they “wander until settling in near feeding stations, where they sometimes spend the entire winter.”  Today is the fourth day it has appeared in my yard, and I am hoping that it will choose my “feeding station” to spend the winter. I have switched from loose seed that gets consumed within a few hours, to a seed cylinder in hopes that the constant food supply might encourage it to remain.

While it perches in my bushes from time to time,


Harris’s Sparrow

it never eats from the feeder. Instead it is a ground feeder and often exhibits “scratching” behavior, much like a towhee.


Harris’s Sparrow ‘scratching’ secures seed

Its winter diet consists primarily of a variety of seeds. When it forages under my feeder, it is able to capture small seeds that break off and fall to the ground. It also consumes a variety of insects, spiders, and mites which it should be able to find in my yard.

It is also fairly secretive and doesn’t stay long in the open. When it is finished feeding, it retreats over the back wall to an unknown location. While I have seen it foraging with House Sparrows next to my small pond and bubbler, I have never seen it hop onto the elevated, exposed bathing perch used by the other birds that visit my garden.

Last winter’s sparrow visitor was a Lincoln’s Sparrow. While not rare like the Harris’s Sparrow, I usually see it deep in foliage near ponds and the riverside drain, only occasionally popping into view. I have never been able to photograph it successfully. Birds of North America Online describes it as “considered among the more elusive of North America’s birds.”

When one visited my yard in early March 2018, I assumed that it was a one day visitor as it migrated north. Instead, one – and sometimes two, Lincoln’s Sparrows were regular visitors for the next three weeks.


Lincoln Sparrow arrives

Like the Harris’s Sparrow, I observed them foraging on the ground, often under a bush outside of my window. Occasionally, they ventured further enabling me to capture some photos.


Lincoln’a Sparrow

In the Rocky Mountain west, they breed at high elevations, primarily near boggy areas. My summer observations have primarily occurred after they had finished breeding, when they reverted to using their soft call notes.

In late June, I was walking along a boardwalk trail at the Beaver Ponds in Rocky Mountain NP with my friend Sue. A bird was singing in the reeds. It was a song I was unfamiliar with. Much to my surprise, when it eventually popped into view and continued its song, I was blessed with the opportunity to see a singing Lincoln’s Sparrow.


Singing Lincoln’s Sparrow

While singing, breeding birds are always fun, I am grateful for my winter sparrow visitors that give me the opportunity to learn more about them.

Harris Sparrow Update – December 28:

I knew for sure that the Harris’s Sparrow had chosen to make my yard its winter feeding habitat when I returned from a long weekend in California in early December. It has happily done the two-step shuffle below my feeders each day, arriving early in the morning. While it often disappears during the day, it often shows up midday, and usually returns with the House Sparrows for the late-afternoon feeding frenzy.  It was officially counted as part of the Albuquerque CBC.

Last night it snowed several inches. When it first arrived in my yard, it twitched in the tree adjacent to my feeder and seemed reluctant to walk in the soft snow – odd for a bird that nests in Hudson Bay!


As soon as the other birds had tamped it down, it happily began feeding on the snowy ground – and has been there most of the day.








One thought on “Winter Sparrow Visitors Provide Learning Opportunities

  1. Pingback: Wildlife Highlights of 2018 | It's a bird thing...

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