Slow down and look closer – our 20 miles of trail in Lawrence and Hopewell Townships host an abundance of birdlife, and we want you to be able to keep them all straight. Welcome to Feathered Friends of the LHT, an ongoing series of “field guides” to Mercer County birds.
Don’t overlook the tiny sparrow. These birds may seem ordinary — and, of course, you can see common house sparrows almost everywhere, even hanging out with pigeons in the densest urban environments. But there are actually several other species of sparrow that call New Jersey’s wilder spaces home; and being able to differentiate between these charming little acrobats can be a challenge for even seasoned birders. Test your sparrow skills this winter on the LHT.
Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) are common year-round residents in New Jersey — in fact, they’re one of the most abundant birds in the country. They can be hard to spot in dense brush, but the large groups they congregate in can give them away. Check out thickets, marshy areas, alongside creeks and forests, and in hedges and gardens. During the winter, these birds feed on seeds; and in the warmer months they consume a variety of insects. Males and females look alike, with chocolate brown flecked breasts, tawny and deep brown backs, tawny heads, grey-white faces, and blunt beaks. That said, they can vary in appearance from region to region — those in Alaska are larger; and desert residents are softer in color. Song sparrows are known for their sweet songs — three notes followed by a trill. Females incubate two to six eggs and both parents feed the nestlings. Read more at Audubon.
Sparrows, though tiny, are busy and hardworking. Because of their industriousness, they symbolize empowerment, vigilance, and self-worth. And their singing — often delightful — can represent joyfulness and community.
White-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) are winter residents here in New Jersey, where you can spot them in the undergrowth in and along woodlands and in densely treed suburban areas (some may even show up at backyard birdfeeders). You’ll often see them in loose flocks, distinguished by their white or tan and black striped heads and yellowish feathers by their eyes. Females and males are nearly indistinguishable, with white patches under pointed beaks, grey-brown breasts, and streaked brown backs and wings. They feed on berries and seeds during cooler months and various bugs during the summer. Listen for a clear, whistling song that ends with a call that sounds like Peabody or Canada. Females lay two to seven eggs and both parents feed the brood. Read more at Audubon.
Chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina), another year-round resident of the Middle Atlantic, used to live exclusively in coniferous forests but are now a common site in open woodlands, parks, orchards and farms, parks, and suburban neighborhoods. In fact, this widespread little bird is fairly tolerant of humans making them easy to spot. Look for greyish-breasted little birds with a black stripe across their eyes, light and dark brown streaks on their heads and wings, and blunt, reddish beaks. The male and female chipping sparrows are indistinguishable; and they feed on seeds during the winter and a variety of bugs in the spring and summer. Their songs are musical — listen for one-note twills or whirs. Females lay two to five eggs and both parents feed their chicks. Read more at Audubon.
American tree sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) only spend winters in New Jersey; spending summers further north than their close relatives — raising their young in the northern tundra of Canada and Alaska. In New Jersey, American tree sparrows spend their time in roadside brush, weedy and grassy areas, marshland, woodland edges, and suburban yards where they often join juncos and other sparrows at birdfeeders. Males and females are identical, with off white to light grey breasts, red brown heads, streaked black and brown wings with white tips, and a brown streak across their eyes. They feed on seeds, insects, and berries; and their songs feature clear, musical notes followed by warbles along with tseet calls. Females lay and incubate four to six eggs and both males and females feed their young. Read more at Audubon.