Tale of Two Sparrows

October 17, 2016 at 5:00 am (Bird photography, Birds - Oklahoma, National Wildlife Refuges (US Fish & Wildlife), Nature, Nature photography, Oklahoma, Wichita Mountains NWR, Wildlife)

From my MeadowLarking column in the Fort Sill Tribune.


FORT SILL, Okla., Feb. 25, 2016 — There are two types of black-bibbed sparrows on Fort Sill right now, one being native, and the other an unwelcome immigrant. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it is the best of birds, and the worst of birds.

The native Harris’s sparrow visits Oklahoma and the prairie states in winter, and migrates north in summer to breed. Its most intense coloration is during breeding season, so the closer it gets to that time of year, the better the plumage gets.

The house sparrow, also known as the English sparrow, is the unwelcome intruder. Native to Europe, it was brought over in the mid-1800s in a misguided attempt to replicate the charms of native lands by homesick settlers, and to control agricultural pests. Unfortunately, as with most non-native animal or plant species, there is usually an accompanying rift in the balance of nature. Plus they are mainly seed eaters, so instead of devouring the crop’s pests, they ate the crop seeds instead.

In the case of the house sparrow, it tends to kick out native bird species from cavities they need for their nests. Tree swallows, bluebirds and purple martins sometimes lose the battle with these feisty little bullies. They are also dependent on the human environment, which provides many nooks and crannies for their sloppy nests. Thus, they are one of the most common birds in America, Europe and Asia. They are often seen in fast-food parking lots scrounging for discarded French fries or squabbling over pieces of bread.

The Harris’s Sparrow, on the other hand, is comparatively uncommon. It needs a specific habitat to thrive, and according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, it is the only bird species that breeds in Canada and nowhere else in the world. On Fort Sill it has been seen at the Natural Resources area and Geronimo’s grave site cemetery. It prefers open ground with shrubs and trees nearby.

Some notable differences between the two: the Harris’s is a fairly large sparrow with a longer tail than the house sparrow. Its bill is pink, the breast light gray, with streaks near the wings, and two wing bars. The male house sparrow also sports a black bib, but its head is brown and gray, the bill black, and the breast is a dingy gray. It’s a more compact sparrow as well. For both species, the more black a male shows on his bib, the more dominant he is in the pecking order.

Their calls set them apart, with the Harris’s a hard “chip.” The house sparrow really doesn’t have much of a song, but the Harris’s song is two or three clear and loud notes on the same pitch. Even away from the breeding grounds, a gung-ho male might try out his pipes just for practice.

The house sparrow’s incessant chirping lacks melody and beauty. However, it is pretty much background noise for most of us, since we’re so used to it.

It is a far, far better tweet that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better nest that I go to than I have ever known — Harris’s sparrow.


From Fort Sill Tribune, Feb. 25, 2016



  1. Patti Henshaw said,

    Thanks Cindy, love that your photos also provide good information. When I visit OK someday I will be looking for the Harris’s sparrow.

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