Above: Rusty marks on the crown, behind the eye, and on the side help us to identify an American Tree Sparrow; by Peter Taylor
How do I recognize it?
The American Tree Sparrow resembles the more familiar Chipping Sparrow, but it is a little larger and distinguished by a greyer brow, a rusty patch on the side of its body (adjacent to the bend of the folded wing) and a blackish spot in the centre of its grey breast.
Above: This frontal view shows the diagnostic central dark spot; by Peter Taylor
Does it migrate?
Birders in southern Manitoba can only expect this sparrow during migration. It often arrives before the end of March and continues north after a few weeks, sometimes lingering into early May if spring is late. Southbound migration is mostly between late September and early November. Though it winters farther north than most “New World sparrows”, this species is not a common winter straggler in Manitoba.
Above: An American Tree Sparrow and two Dark-eyed Juncos rummage for seeds in a pavement crack after some mid-October snow flurries; by Peter Taylor
Where does it live?
The breeding range extends from Alaska to Labrador and includes a band across northern Manitoba, adjoining the Hudson Bay coast and Nunavut. Winter range extends across the northern and central U.S. and mild regions of southern Canada. At all times, this sparrow shows a preference for shrubby habitats.
Above: This immature fall migrant still has some of its juvenile streaking; by Peter Taylor
Where can I see it?
During migration, look for a few American Tree Sparrows accompanying flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos at feeders or elsewhere, or search for small feeding flocks in stands of willows and cattails, including those in ditches along section roads. They are often detected in spring by their sweet song and in fall by distinctive, high-pitched calls.
Above: A fall migrant feeding on willow seeds; by Peter Taylor
Partners in Flight describes the American Tree Sparrow as a “common bird in steep decline”. The remote breeding range makes the population difficult to monitor, so Christmas Bird Count data and other winter or migration counts are especially important.
Above: A spring migrant perches jauntily on a cattail stem; by Peter Taylor
Did you know?
The American Tree Sparrow and Eurasian Tree Sparrow belong to different bird families, the latter being a relative of the House Sparrow that has turned up in Manitoba on a handful of occasions.
Written by Peter Taylor