The word ‘sparrow’ is a general one applied to a number of tiny, chirping birds that are not necessarily closely related. One characteristic of sparrows is their cone-shaped, robust beaks which allow them to break open and eat seeds. They are not fussy eaters, though, and will also eat insects which puts them in our good books. At the cottage we have five species of songbirds with the word sparrow in their name.
Our most numerous sparrow is the song sparrow. We see them as early as April and as late as October, in deed, every month we are at the cottage. Our corner of Lanark is at the northern edge of the song sparrow’s year-round range, so it is possible they are around in the winter as well. Although song sparrows are seed eaters, we do not see them at the sunflower seed feeder. They seem to prefer the tiny seeds of the cedars by the shore, or on the ground at the base of these trees.
Tied for second place as sparrows we see most often around the cottage are the chipping and swamp sparrows.
Chipping sparrows appear by early May at the cottage. One spring when we arrived, we saw a female chipping sparrow building a nest in the blue spruce to the lakeside of our screened-in porch. We were excited to think we would have great seats to watch her tending her eggs and newborns, but by the next day she had disappeared from sight. We were worried and disheartened about our possibly having encroached on her territory, but we later learned that female chipping sparrows are finicky nest builders and commonly restart their nests in a different location before they are satisfied. We know chipping sparrows nest somewhere around us because we see them often. Like the song sparrow, chipping sparrows are seed eaters that spend a lot of time foraging at ground level.
We saw our first swamp sparrow in 2020, after over a dozen years cottaging on Three Mile Bay. That was the year we started to pay more attention to the margins of the marshy edges of the bay after learning that so many birds nest in wetlands. Like the song and chipping sparrows, swamp sparrows eat seeds, but in the spring, they also eat a number of different insects. Lanark is well within their breeding range. They leave for the winter perhaps flying only as far south as south-western Ontario, but they might fly further south into the United States. The earliest we have seen swamp sparrows is mid-July, the latest mid-October. Sometimes we think we are learning to differentiate them from song and chipping sparrows but it seems to depend on the day, and whether or not we did a good job of cleaning our glasses that morning.
We see white-throated sparrows far less often. In fact, we first managed to snap a photograph of one in 2018, and since then have seen only one or two each year. White Lake is well within the southern boundary of the white-throated sparrow’s breeding range. Perhaps we do not have quite the right conditions for their ground level nests. With their distinctive white throats and yellow spots (lores) between beaks and eyes, the white-throated sparrow is far easier to identify than the song, chipping, and marsh sparrows. We would love to see them more often partly because in addition to eating weed seeds, they eat a large number of insects during the summer.
The white-crowned sparrow is a rare visitor to the cottage, spotted once in 2017 at the seed feeder and once in 2022. We were fortunate to see them at all, as they migrate north to their breeding grounds near James Bay. The white-crowned sparrow winters in the southern mid-west of The States and as far south as central Mexico. It is too bad they do not spend more time with us because, like the white-throated sparrow, they are fairly easy to identify with the bold black and white stripes on their heads.
We love to see all of the sparrows that routinely spend time at Three Mile Bay, as well as the less frequent visitors. We will certainly have our eyes peeled for them when we return to the cottage in a couple of months. (We can hardly wait.)
For this article we checked some facts on www.allaboutbirds.org. Also, we particularly like Jeffrey C. Domm’s Lorimer Field Guide to 225 Ontario Birds when we want to read about nest placement.