Many think of sparrows as somewhat drab birds and sparrows are often referred to as L.B.J.’s, little brown jobs. However, many sparrow species have beautiful plumage. During the busy holiday season take a moment and see what L.B.J.’s might be in your own backyard.
Here are a few of the sparrow species that you can see right now throughout New Mexico:
• The dark-eyed junco is not often thought of as a sparrow species, but it is in fact a member of the general sparrow family.
One of the most common birds in North America, it spends the winter months in New Mexico and sports the nickname “snow bird.”
Juncos are fairly easy to identify. This attractive sparrow species is 6.25 inches long with a distinctive dark hood, a brownish back, white under-belly and a pale-pinkish short beak.
Two sub-species of the dark-eyed junco that also winter in New Mexico include the Oregon and pink-sided junco. Each have a grayer hood with rusty or pink flanks. Usually seen in flocks, juncos prefer to forage for seeds on the ground. Juncos commonly visit bird feeders in winter.
Juncos are early birds and I often see them scooting on the ground below my bird feeder just before daybreak.
• The white-crowned sparrow is aptly named and one of my favorite sparrow species. It is perhaps the easiest sparrow species to identify.
This rather large sparrow is 7 inches long with a striking black and white striped head. It has a light brownish back, gray breast and yellow-orange bill. Like many sparrows it prefers to forage for seeds on the ground and will visit bird feeders searching for its favorite, black-oil sunflower seeds.
The less common white-throated sparrow has similar markings to the white-crowned. The notable distinction is its white throat and yellow lores (tiny feathers between eye and bill).
• Common and widespread throughout New Mexico is the song sparrow. A 6.25 inch long rusty-gray bird with bold breast streaks that converge to a central breast spot. Its fairly long tail is rounded and most noticeable when in flight.
This sparrow is found in a variety of habitats such as open deserts, brushy areas near water and mixed woodlands. I usually see this sparrow in the bosque along the Rio Grande river in Albuquerque.
Like other sparrows, the song sparrow mainly forages for seeds on the ground and will form loose flocks in winter. Not a common visitor to backyard bird feeders but will use bird baths.
Mary Schmauss is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque. A lifetime birder and author of “For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to your Backyard.”