Time schedule for the early spring migration & the habits of the fox sparrow

BIRD COLUMN FOR March 21, 2004

By Benjamin P. Burtt

The Time Schedule for the Early Spring Migration
The habits of the fox sparrow

This is the fox sparrow. It will show up this week and some will be migrating through from now until early May.

This beautiful bird in Roger Tory Peterson's painting is indeed a foxy color. The arrows in this painting from Peterson's "Birds of Eastern and Central North America" call your attention to two important field marks for identification: the rusty tail and the central breast spot. ( Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co. )

In Central New York, the spring arrival of birds from the south begins in March. The first ones to arrive are those that can eat seeds or berries. Those that eat only flying insects have to wait until about April 10.

How do the birds know when to come? Their hormones tell them and it is the length of the daylight that tips off the hormones. From the hormones the birds get a sort of restless urge to head north. Over thousands of years, each species has developed this ability to have the length of the daylight send a signal within the brain to release the hormones on a date appropriate for that species.

About March 1, Male red-winged blackbirds show up and they do well on seeds.

Around the 10th, when the day is about 30 minutes longer, we begin to see robins, bluebirds, killdeer, meadowlarks and turkey vultures.

Berries are eaten by robins and bluebirds. The killdeer must dig up small insects and it puzzles me that they can find enough to get along. Meadowlarks eat lots of insects in the summer, but because they can feed on seeds, they are able to survive here in early March. The turkey vulture's keen sense of smell enables it to find dead animals even if they are covered with snow.

By the 15th of March the day is 15 minutes longer than on the 10th and that is when the female red-winged blackbird arrives along with the phoebe. The latter is a flycatcher, but it arrives a couple weeks before insects are in the air. It can survive because it is the only flycatcher that is able to feed on berries if insects are not flying.

Starting today March 21 and continuing through the week, many new birds will show up. The list includes the harrier, song sparrow, fox sparrow and winter wren. Woodcock should appear and we will see kestrels, kingfishers and snipe.


A new bird on the ground around our feeders will be the fox sparrow. This species first shows up about now in late March and some will be passing through for about a month.

They are on their way to the northern forests of Canada and Newfoundland for the summer. There, they are one of the most common nesting birds. Their nest is on the ground in scrubby thickets and where the trees are stunted. They seldom nest south of the St. Lawrence River.

The fox sparrow is a very attractive member of the sparrow family. It spends the winter from the Gulf of Mexico north to southern Pennsylvania.

We will not see them again until the fall when they return to their winter quarters. Thus there are only two brief times during the year when we have the chance to see the fox sparrow.

The fox sparrow is the largest of the sparrows that we see. The breast is heavily streaked. Like the song sparrow, the streaks come together to form a central spot on the breast. However, the other markings on the fox sparrow are much broader and darker than those of the song sparrow.

Its most distinguishing identifying mark is the rusty-brown red rump and tail. It is this fox-like color that gives it its name.

Like the towhee, it feeds by scratching away the dead leaves in its busy search for seeds and insects. Both feet are used, and it makes quite a commotion in the brush. In fact, one often hears the scratching and rustling in the leaves before actually seeing the bird. It makes so much noise that one suspects the sound is being made by a chipmunk or squirrel.

During the next two or three weeks, you can find the fox sparrow in woods and secluded thickets or among bushes at the edge of a field. It is hard to spot it there on the ground. When disturbed however, the bird will usually fly into the lowest branches of nearby trees and become quite conspicuous and easy to identify. In a moment or two it will return to the ground to scratch around some more.

While it probably will not come to a feeder on a post or a tubular feeder, you can bring it into your feeding area by putting fine grains on the ground. Use cracked corn, millet or crushed sunflower seed.

Most birds are accustomed to feeding on the ground and when a bird first visits your yard that is one place where they are almost sure to come to seeds that you offer.

Years ago, I moved a huge flat rock to a spot outside our big window. It is five feet long and three feet wide and about a foot thick. This was the two and one half ton doorstep to the Morse farm house that occupied this land up until 1940.

I partially buried the rock so that the flat upper surface is about three inches above the lawn. There is room for many birds to feed there at the same time. It is easy to sweep it clean. Of course it is visited by squirrels and chipmunks that can not reach food on the post feeders.

However, it does make it easy for new bird visitors to feed in our yard and that is where I usually see the fox sparrows.

All of the birds due this week and those that have arrived already, are birds that spent the winter in the southern part of the United States. Those that went to Central America and South America are on their way, but none of them arrive here for another two weeks.

Until the next column on April 4 you can get an update on the birds expected by calling 315-472-2111 and when you hear the greeting, punch in 7336. Other bird news is available there too. This message will be updated every few days as things change.

You can also check the announcements section on the left side of the home page of this web site

Migrant red-winged Blackbirds and February Feeder Survey results

BIRD COLUMN For March 7, 2004

By Benjamin P. Burtt

One of the signs of spring is the arrival of the first bird from the south. Normally, that is the male red-winged blackbird. While a few red-wings have been here all winter, the migrants usually show up in Central New York during the first week of March and begin to sing. However, that first date can vary a week either way. This year I heard my first one on March 2.

I always look forward to hearing the song, "oh-ker-ee", which for me says that spring has arrived.

(Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Company)

The adult male is shown on the lower left in this painting by Roger Tory Peterson. The courtship centers about the display of the male's scarlet epaulets that have a yellowish border.

When the male red-wing is absorbed in feeding and not courting or defending its territory, the scarlet is hidden and he becomes a plain black bird with a pale yellow stripe on his shoulder as shown by the bird in the middle.

The female, upper right is a brownish bird with sparrow like stripes below. Males in their first year resemble the female except that they have a reddish shoulder.

This painting is from Peterson's "Birds of Eastern and Central North America", fifth edition.

On the February feeder survey, out of 100 reports there normally would be perhaps 10 that listed one or more winter resident red-wings. This time there was only one report of a single bird. Perhaps the long, cold weather we have had this year has kept these birds further south.

Bird news from the February Feeder Survey

For each of you who feeds birds, it is fun to be able to compare what you saw in your yard during the first week of February with the observations of others who feed birds. The February Feeder Survey has now been tabulated.

Here are the birds most often seen, and the number present at the average feeder during the period from February 2 to 8.

There were five species that were seen by over 90% of the observers. Here are those species with the average number of each that was listed on the reports. You can compare this to your count - - - Chickadees 5, downy woodpecker 2, junco 7, mourning dove 9 and crows 8.

The most numerous bird was the goldfinch and the average person had 12. Redpolls were almost as abundant as they were in January. Those who listed redpoll had about 20 of them in sight at one time. There were lots of mourning doves. More abundant than normal were tree sparrows, titmice, juncos and red-breasted nuthatches.

There were almost no blackbirds or any kind. Not a single bluebird or pheasant was reported.

The typical feeder had 15 species during the first week of February.

Some species do not travel in flocks and we usually see just the male and the female. This is true of the following species in which we see only 1 or 2. These include the downy woodpecker, the white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches and the tufted titmouse.

The short lists

Every list is important for I am interested in knowing what birds people see. Some people have a better habitat than do others and have a greater variety of species. However, to learn what birds are around, we need to have reports whether they are long or short.

The third grade class at the New Haven Elementary School continues to send a list that is forwarded by their teacher Mrs. Norma Griffin. This time they listed the same species they had in January. They had 3 mourning doves as they did last month, but they had 21 goldfinches and 21 common redpolls which was almost double the numbers of those birds they tallied the month before.

Listing 9 species were Niles Brown of Tully, Charles Bruner of Brooktondale, Eugenia Fish of Cortland and John and Marilyn Ross of Canton.

The longest lists

Tallying 26 species was Ken Zoller of West Winfield. He was the only person to see horned larks and he had 30 of them at Waterloo. Linda Quackenbush had 25 species and she was the only person to have a saw-whet owl. Judy Thurber reported 24 species in Syracuse including the only great blue heron and red-breasted merganser. There were 23 species on the list from Ed Street in Cazenovia and he was the only one to have a sapsucker.

There were 22 on two reports from Baldwinsville, that of Steve Swenson and from John and Elizabeth Wallace. The Wallaces were the only people to see a redwing. Also reporting 22 were Barbara and Richard of Richland.

Listing 21 species were Lawrence Abrahamson of Marcellus and Bill Purcell of Hastings. Bill was the only person to list a Bohemian waxwing while Lawrence tallied the only mockingbird,

Listing 20 species were Paul Radway of Pompey, William and Mary Fais of New Woodstock and Kathy and Scott Trefz in Perryville. The Fais's spotted the only towhee.

Other scarce birds

The Burch family in Skaneateles, were the only people to see snow geese. In Dewitt, Estelle Hahn had a screech owl. The only rusty blackbird was tallied by Douglas Nielsen of Syracuse. And Dana Wilson reported the only kestrel in Canastota.


Below is a list of all species reported. For each bird, the first figure is the number of them listed on 100 reports and the number in parentheses is the percentage of the reports that listed that species.

Great Blue Heron 1 (1); snow goose 5 (1); Canada goose 436 (16).

Ducks: mallard 26 (5); common merganser 47 {2);red-breasted merganser 1 (1).

Daytime birds of prey: bald eagle 2 (2); sharp-shinned 17 (17); Cooper's 16 (16); red-tailed 27 (22); kestrel 1 (1); turkey 164 (14).

Gulls: ring-billed 6 (4); herring 23 (3); black-backed 6 (2); rock dove 208 (9; mourning dove 809 (90); screech owl 1 (1); horned owl 3 (2); saw-whet owl 1 (1).

Woodpeckers: red-bellied 60 (47); sapsucker 1 (1); downy woodpecker 213 (91); hairy 112 (64); flicker 4 (4); pileated 3 (3); horned lark 30 (1).

Blue jay 299 (78); crow 724 (90); raven 2 (2); black-capped chickadee 551 (99); titmouse 113 (59); red-breasted nuthatch 68 (46); white-breasted nuthatch 134 (75); brown creeper 8 (6); Carolina wren 8 (6); golden crowned kinglet 3 (2); robin 226 (4); mockingbird 1 (1); starling 563 (60); cedar waxwing 123 (5); bohemian waxwing 1 northern shrike 2 (2); cardinal 380 (85); towhee 1 (1).

Sparrows: tree 391 (61); field 2 (2); song 10 (7); white-throated 96 (27); white-crowned 4 (3); junco 676 (91); snow bunting 12 (2).
Red-winged blackbird 1 (1); rusty blackbird 1 (1); cowbird 11 (5); purple finch 9 (3); house finch 434 (53); redpoll 866 (44); hoary redpoll 3 (2);pine siskin 8 (5); goldfinch 1,017 (83); evening grosbeak 41 (3); house sparrow 500 (47).

The March feeder survey starts today, March 7 and ends Saturday.
( the survey always starts on the first Sunday of the month )

Please watch whenever you can and keep a record of the number of birds of each species that you see each time. At the end of the week, list the largest number of each species that you saw at any one time during that week.

If you would like to help with this project and have not done so before, you can also read the complete instructions here on this web site. Click on LIBRARY at the left and near the beginning of this column. Then on FEEDER SURVEY INSTRUCTIONS.

Arrange all the species in the order shown in the list on this page from last month. Put each species on a separate line with the number first, followed by the birds name. Please write the number of species at the top of the list.

At the end of the week, put your list on a postcard or in a letter and send it to B.P.Burtt, Smokey Hollow Rd., Jamesville, NY 13078-9548. You can send results by EMAIL to birdcolumn@usadatanet.net( Please include the name of your town