This is Zonotricia season.
Don’t shrink in fear.
Zonotricia is a group of closely related sparrows—a genus, in science-speak.
The Latin name refers to the pattern on their heads. Just pronounce the word the way it’s written, Zo No Trish E. Ah and let’s proceed.
Or, you could do like I do: Refer to these birds as “stripe-headed sparrows.”
There are five species. Four of their English names refer to the patterns on the head. These are golden-crowned sparrow, rufous-collared sparrow, white-crowned sparrow and white-throated sparrow.
The first two of these need not detain us; they occur elsewhere.
The fifth stripe-headed sparrow species is Harris’ sparrow. John James Audubon named it for his friend and traveling companion, Edward Harris; more about him later.
These three—Harris’, white-crowned and white-throated sparrows—are common migrants here. In some ways, they are conspicuous birds. Nevertheless, they can be overlooked. They are sparrows, of course, and this implies small, brown birds. The term “little brown job” fairly applies to each of these species.
It’s not a complete description, though, and these sparrows can be told from other sparrows quite easily.
Here’s the trick:
Once the sparrow is in sight, have a look at the pattern on the head.
Harris’ sparrow rather resembles a monk with his hood drawn up. The face, head and neck are black.
White-crowned sparrow does have a white crown. That’s not quite definitive, however. So does the white-throated sparrow.
Remember the white-crowned sparrow has a white crown and no white throat. The white-throated sparrow has both a white crown and a white throat. Additionally, it usually has a spot of yellow right in front of the eye, and it usually is more streaked on the breast than the white-crowned sparrow.
This sounds more complicated than it really is, so don’t despair. These patterns are quite distinctive, and once learned, they won’t be forgotten, and you’ll be able to call out the proper name of the species quickly, amazing yourself and—perhaps—your friends.
Yes, these sparrows are among the treasures of the bird world.
None of them is resident in the Red River Valley, though the white-throated has been found at home in the Turtle Mountains and in the Pembina Hills, places not too distant from Grand Forks. In Minnesota, the species nests in the northeastern half of the state, roughly north and east of a line from, say, Hallock to St. Paul.
The white-crowned sparrow nests in the far North, across Alaska and Canada north to the Arctic Ocean. Its range pushes southward in the Rocky Mountains, as far as northern New Mexico.
Harris’ sparrow also is a northern nester, but in a much narrower range. It is found on the shore of Hudson Bay northwestward to the mouth of the McKenzie River—a strictly Canadian nester, in other words.
Harris’ sparrows migrate in a kind of funnel-shaped pattern across the continent to the Gulf of Mexico. The funnel narrows as it passes North Dakota, and so many Harris’ sparrows put up here during migration.
Still, the white-throated is the most commonly encountered.
White-crowned sparrows seem to be to be less frequent than either of the other species—but they also are marginally plainer and more likely to fade into a background of dead leaves or feeding sparrows.
All of the striped-head sparrows are ground lovers. They feed on seed spilled from feeders. One day last week, I had nearly 100 white-throated sparrows; the stragglers are fewer but still present.
The white-throated sparrow is famous for its song. This is loud, with multiple notes on the same pitch, often rendered “Oh! Sam Peabody! Peabody! Peabody!” Or alternately. “Oh! Sweet Canada! Canada! Canada!” The first notes move up the scale; the later, more rapid notes move down scale.
Harris’ sparrows have a similar, but truncated song, usually one to three notes on the same pitch, almost like the introduction to its cousin call: “Oh! Sweet! Sweet!”
The white-crowned sparrow starts with the same clear, loud note, but its call soon switches to a confusion of whistles and chirps.
The songs of these sparrows have been the object of lots of study; apparently, they are learned and recognized. This has important implications for how the birds court and how localized populations develop.
Both white-crowned and Harris’ sparrows have North Dakota namesakes. White-crowned sparrows once were called “Nuttall’s sparrow.” Thomas Nuttall was a British scientist, a botanist mostly, who spent quite a lot of time in the American West, including a trip up the Missouri River in 1811. Edward Harris, namesake of Harris’ sparrow, accompanied Audubon on his trip up the Missouri in 1843. He was an important member of the party and kept an extensive and informative journal. Harris had other interests. He raised horses, and he’s credited with introducing the Percheron into North America.