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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Sparrows swarm backyard bird feeders during Kentucky’s cold winter months

When you feed songbirds during the winter months sparrows are likely to come in droves.

The little brown and tan birds are seed eaters and they relish the small seeds commonly found in wild bird mixes — black oil sunflower seeds, millet, and milo. They will feed on hanging feeders, or trays laid on the ground where the seed is just piled up.

A tufted titmouse feeds on black oil sunflower seeds. (Photo from Flickr Commons)

Sparrows are busy little birds who are active, social feeders. They don’t stay still for long and the most common species look so much alike it’s often hard to tell them apart from a distance without binoculars.

Three species of sparrows that are likely to be observed at backyard feeders in central Kentucky include:

• The field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) nests across Kentucky in semi-open and open habitats, and is common in the Bluegrass Region.

Its year-round geographic range extends from Oklahoma, east to coastal Georgia, north to New England, and west to Missouri, with birds nesting as far west as North Dakota, throughout the Great Lakes states to New England.

Common here throughout the winter, some birds flock up and stay local, but there are seasonal movements of birds that nest in Kentucky. Some winter as far south as Texas, the Gulf coast states and Florida.

They nest in Kentucky, from mid-April to mid-August, often on the ground, or in briars, shrubs or small trees.

• The song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is common in central and eastern Kentucky, with very low numbers west of the Green River.

Song Sparrow (Photo by Allan Hack, courtesy Audubon Society)

This sparrow lives in a wide variety of habitats, from small woodland openings in forested areas to brushy, overgrown fields. They are often found in great numbers along streams, but they also live in suburban and rural yards and fencerows in farmlands.

The song sparrow’s year-round geographic range includes parts of 10 states west of the Mississippi River, and the Ohio Valley into New England, with birds nesting as far west as Montana and all throughout the provinces of Canada.

The song sparrow is found statewide in winter. Nesting in Kentucky begins in April and can continue through August. Nests are on the ground or in shrubs, evergreens or small trees, less than three feet off the ground.

• The house sparrow (Passer domesticus) is Kentucky’s most common sparrow, a non-native species that thrive in close proximity to humans.

The house sparrow lives in urban areas, small towns, suburbs and rural farmlands, always around manmade structures, never in unaltered natural habitats.

House Sparrow (Photo courtesy Audubon Society)

According to the Audubon Society, the house sparrow is “one of the most widespread and abundant songbirds in the world today. Native to Eurasia and northern Africa, it has succeeded in urban and farming areas all over the world, including North America, where it was first released at New York in 1851. Tough, adaptable, aggressive, it survives on city sidewalks where few birds can make a living; in rural areas, it may evict native birds from their nests.”

Nesting in Kentucky occurs from mid-March through July, usually in cavities, or the rafters of sheds, barns and abandoned houses in farmlands.

Consult the Audubon Bird Guide for more details on the identification and life history of sparrows. www.audubon.org

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Other Seed-Eating Birds Observed

Other songbird species observed at backyard feeders that prefer seeds include the mourning dove, goldfinch, cardinal, chickadee, and dark-eyed junco. The blue jay, a notorious bully at backyard feeders, loves shelled corn.

Expect to see a few insect-eaters too, such as nuthatches, wrens and woodpeckers, which look for insects in the bark of trees. These birds shift their diets from insects to seeds and berries in the winter.

Cold weather Feeding

It’s especially important to feed songbirds during periods of severe cold and/or snow cover.

Suet cakes, high in fat and calories, attract several species of woodpeckers, but other small birds will eat them too. Suet cake “flavors” that wild birds like include: peanut, cherry, berry blend, woodpecker blend and sunflower.

Arguably, the best overall wild bird food in winter is black oil sunflower, relished by small birds, as well as cardinals and bluejays. Place the sunflower seed in a tube feeder for small birds, a hopper-style feeder, which loads from the top, for larger birds, or just pile up the seeds on a tray, made from scrap lumber and plywood.

Along the urban/suburban interface seed blends that contain milo and cracked corn are likely to draw lots of house sparrows, squirrels, and flocks of starlings.

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