Watch for the American Tree Sparrow in Winter

After breeding in the northern reaches of North America, the American tree sparrow arrives in much of the lower 48 to spend the winter.

tree sparrowCourtesy Janet Zimmerman
American tree sparrow

There are some bird species that always make me think that winter can’t be far off. The American tree sparrow is one of those species. After breeding in the northern parts of Canada and Alaska, they migrate south and winter throughout much of the United States. You are likely to see this species each winter, unless you are in the southern third of the lower 48. Some years, these birds migrate even farther south.

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american tree sparrow©Rob Ripma
American tree sparrow feeding on the ground.

How to Identify an American Tree Sparrow

If you think you’ve seen a chipping sparrow in winter, you might want to take a second look. You may be seeing an American tree sparrow— a winter visitor throughout the central and northern U.S. The time of year when you see the birds can be a clue to identifying them. As the seasons change, look for American tree sparrows to replace the chipping sparrows in your backyard.

These two sparrow species take turns as popular backyard birds in the northern United States. Chipping sparrows live there in summer, migrating to the southern states in fall. American tree sparrows spend summers in the Arctic, appearing south of Canada only from late fall to early spring. The tree sparrow is slightly larger, with more obvious white wing bars. The stripe behind its eye is reddish brown, not black or dark gray as on the chipping sparrow. Pay attention to the different bill colors as well: They are bicolored black and yellow on tree sparrows, while chipping sparrows’ bills are black in summer and partly dull pink in winter.

The American tree sparrow loves long grasses and marshes but is also a pretty common feeder bird. Unlike many of the sparrows, you can find this sparrow eating suet in addition to seed. Their favorite feeder foods include nyjer (thistle), cracked corn, white proso millet and hulled sunflower seed.

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american tree sparrowCourtesy Laurie Dirkx

“Some days, the winter skies are drab and full of snow clouds. Yet it’s on those dark days that mellow colors become rich, especially when there is no light to cause contrast as on sunny days. One dark day, this American tree sparrow momentarily perched on a fir branch. I set my camera to an aperture that allowed for a lot of light to enter, so it blurred out the background. I think the image has the feel of a painting,” says Laurie Dirkx of Ontario, New York.

Next, learn how to attract more juncos to your backyard.

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Rob Ripma
Rob Ripma, a lifelong Indiana resident, has traveled and birded extensively throughout the Americas.