Category Archives: Birds & Birding

Savannah Sparrow © Phil Doyle

Take 5: Sorting Out Sparrows

There are some birds that scream for attention, like Northern Cardinals or (more literally) Blue Jays. Sparrows are not that kind of bird. Sparrows are subtle, nuanced, and notoriously tricky to tell apart from one species to another. Commonly referred to as “Little Brown Jobs” (LBJs for short), sparrows mostly just run around, eat seeds, and try to stay out of trouble.

One useful tip to narrow down your options from the more than two dozen sparrows that can be found in Massachusetts is to pay attention to habitat. Some species are grassland specialists, like the Grasshopper Sparrow or Savannah Sparrow. As their names suggest, Seaside Sparrows and Saltmarsh Sparrows are most often seen at the shore. Swamp Sparrows prefer freshwater marshes, and Field Sparrows like early successional habitat (recently or frequently disturbed areas, like grasslands, pastures, shrubby thickets, and young forests).

Geography and time of year can be useful as well, as there are some species that only breed in Massachusetts in the western counties, such as White-throated Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco, but all bets are off during migration when most of these species can be seen almost anywhere.

At that point, your best bet is to narrow down your choices by looking for identifying physical features: Is the breast striped or clear? Is the crown solid or striped? Are there any spots of yellow around the face?

Ask almost any expert for help honing your sparrow identification skills and they’ll likely give you a sympathetic smile and say something encouraging like, “Just keep practicing,” or “Don’t get discouraged.” Sorting out sparrows is, in the end, an exercise in patience and persistence.

If you’d like a leg up on your LBJ-identification training, check out our upcoming online program, Sorting Out Sparrows & Other LBJs. And enjoy these five photos of sparrows from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest. The 2021 photo contest closes this Thursday, September 30, so submit your own nature photography today!

Saltmarsh Sparrow © Andy Eckerson
Saltmarsh Sparrow © Andy Eckerson
Savannah Sparrow © Phil Doyle
Savannah Sparrow © Phil Doyle
Swamp Sparrow © Matt Filosa
Swamp Sparrow © Matt Filosa
Song Sparrow © Thomas Kilian
Song Sparrow © Thomas Kilian
Grasshopper Sparrow © Kevin Bourinot
Grasshopper Sparrow © Kevin Bourinot

Elm Hill Welcomes New Birds

Some species of threatened open-country birds are expanding into new habitat created for them at Elm Hill in Brookfield, a Mass Audubon sanctuary focused on providing shrubland, grassland, and young forest.

Prior to this year, Elm Hill was defined by a patchwork of forest and overgrown agricultural fields, some of which were separated by thin strips of woodland. This landscape offered the perfect opportunity to demonstrate how carefully planned, ecologically mindful forestry can improve habitat for declining open-country birds.

Elm Hill in 2019: scattered fields broken up by thin, wooded borders

Habitat Diversity Yields Species Diversity 

Habitat management at Elm Hill focused on joining fields together to create larger expanses of open space. This work wrapped up last winter, and the list of bird species using the sanctuary is already starting to reflect changes in the landscape.

A flock of at least 200 Bobolinks was recently spotted gathering in the new, larger shrubby fields. This doesn’t necessarily mean Bobolinks are breeding at Elm Hill, but it does mean the sanctuary can provide valuable staging habitat as these birds feed and gather ahead of migration.

Bobolinks are one of several dozen Massachusetts bird species that rely on big expanses of early-successional habitat—open habitat in the early stages of regrowing into forest. Early-successional habitat is a natural but temporary part of the local landscape—without fire or other disturbance, forest re-grows and matures. With small-scale agriculture and natural fire cycles giving way to development and fire suppression, birds that rely on these kinds of habitat are declining.

After their young fledge, Bobolinks gather in flocks before migration. Photo: Gary Leavens/Flickr

Other species that rely on early-successional habitat were also spotted at Elm Hill during this summer’s nesting season, like Prairie Warblers and Eastern Towhees. Prairie Warblers were entirely absent from the sanctuary during three years of bird surveys before Mass Audubon began forestry work there. 

Eliminating “Edge Effects” 

While small fields (like any habitat type) are great for certain birds, the pickiest early-successional habitat specialists avoid them. Nesting too near the edge of mature forest increases opportunities for predators that like to hunt open-habitat species from high perches—so certain birds rely on having big, expansive open areas far from the forest’s edge.

Standing trees give way to shrubby grassland at Elm Hill

Expanding shrubland or young-forest habitat requires a trade-off with standing trees, so it makes the most ecological sense in areas with low-quality forest habitat. Field borders at Elm Hill used to include a lot of red pine and invasive vines, which in central Mass host a limited range of birds—mostly generalists that use other habitat types too, like Tufted Titmice and American Goldfinches. 

Other parts of the sanctuary were left untouched, including mature bottomland forest with few invasive plants. These ecologically valuable forests host birds that rely on older trees and higher plant diversity, like Pileated Woodpeckers and Scarlet Tanagers. 

Now that the work at Elm Hill is done, we can watch new species arriving and share and implement what we learned. Our Forestry for the Birds program is dedicated to teaching other landowners across the state about bird-friendly forestry.