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Nature: Ohio winters offer a warm welcome for tree sparrows

An American tree sparrow/Jim McCormac

Nature: Ohio winters offer a warm welcome for tree sparrows

November 27, 2016

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Come late October/early November, the American tree sparrows descend on Ohio’s meadows. To these plucky little songbirds, Ohio’s winters are its Florida vacation.

Tree sparrows breed as far north as the Arctic Circle. Some of the birds that winter in Ohio might have traveled 2,000 miles south to reach our latitude. Tropically speaking, that’s equal to hopping on a jet and flying south to San Jose, Costa Rica.

One often hears the sparrows before seeing them. Foraging flocks are usually concealed in the vegetation, but they make their presence known with beautiful calls. Tree sparrow notes sound like delicate icicles softly shattering; a crystalline tinkling melody that carries the promise of short frigid days to come.

Tree sparrows are rather extroverted, unlike most of their brethren. When on alert, flocks will often rise atop vegetation where we can admire them. The tree sparrow wears a rusty cap, and sports a black stickpin in the center of its breast. A pair of white bars stripe its wings, and its bicolored bill is yellow below, black above.

The name is a bit of a misnomer. Tree sparrows generally shun trees. They are birds of treeless plains, whether it be Canadian tundra or Ohio meadow. The first Europeans to encounter them were reminded of a songbird of the Old World, the Eurasian tree sparrow, hence the name.

Although tree sparrows won’t rebuff an insect meal, such fare is hard to come by in an Ohio winter. Thus, they adopt a vegan diet and feed heavily on the seeds of plants.

I recently visited Glacier Ridge Metro Park near Dublin and had my autumnal reunion with the tree sparrows. That’s where I shot the accompanying photo.

Park managers have encouraged large, diverse meadows rich in native flora. The birds offered a ringing endorsement. Dozens of American goldfinches capered about, plundering the fruit of various “ weeds”.

In Glacier Ridge’s north meadow, several dozen eastern bluebirds hunted nearly inert grasshoppers stunned by the brisk air. An eastern meadowlark, its lemon breast emblazoned with a black chevron, took to the summit of a small tree. Buoyed by an impeccable azure November sky, it whistled its sharp cheery song.

Numerous sparrows were in the mix: field, song, swamp, white-crowned, and white-throated. And, of course, tree sparrows. The latter fixated on abundant tall goldenrod. Like feathered acrobats, the sparrows would dangle from the goldenrod heads, deftly plucking seeds.

The fruit of goldenrod is rich in fat and protein — just the thing for firing fast metabolisms and creating the energy necessary to survive long frigid nights.

Food-rich meadows rife with native plants have become much scarcer, victims of overly neat agriculture and other development. Natural refugia such as Glacier Ridge have become all the more important in protecting our songbirds.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month.

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