Photo credit: Dan Lory

In the Midwest, when winter rolls in we think of loss and barrenness. The trees drop their leaves, and the forest canopy is folded up and put away until April or May. Autumn’s yellows and oranges and reds give way to the dominant winter motif of light gray, dark gray and medium gray. Warm-weather birds head south. Nature is overtaken by a general mood of plainness, of quiet, of dark, of cold. We who cannot flee are left huddled up waiting for life to return in spring. We long for the days to lengthen, for the temperature to rise, for green to reappear. It’s in our poetry and songs, too, and in our daily gripes—when winter comes, life is gone, all is dead.

To which the American Tree Sparrow says: “What am I, chopped liver?”

If not for winter, we would never see the American Tree Sparrow in the Midwest. During summer, they breed in the farthest north regions of Canada. Then, in late October they come to our area to get away from the much colder Arctic winter and to bring us some life.

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I defy you to stand and watch a flock of American Tree Sparrows even for just 10 minutes, and then tell me that winter is a lifeless season. I was privileged this morning to encounter a few dozen of these tiny birds in some brush-covered mounds in a local park. The dried grasses and thistles definitely fit the bill for drab winterscape—rust-brown, twitching in the cold wind. But there were tiny things moving in the shadows. I counted four Tree Sparrows sitting high in the brush; wait, there are five more, no, at least fifteen more, I think. They would flit back and forth from ground to higher stems, giving the area the look and feel of a pinball machine with dozens of balls. Suddenly they all rose together and bounce-flew to a nearby small tree, where they huddled for a few moments before swooping back to the pinball machine. I don’t know who hit the reset button that sent them off to that tree and back, but they repeated that trick three times while I watched.

There was an awful lot of energy in that brown “lifeless” brush. As the American Tree Sparrows fed, I couldn’t help but think they were expending more energy gathering seeds than the seeds would give them in return. Their energy re-charged me as well. As happens so often when I am out in nature, I walked away from those tiny birds with a big smile on my face.

As I read up on the Tree Sparrow, I found a fascinating bit of nature magic that I had never thought about before. Back up in the Arctic in spring, and starting a family, the female Tree Sparrow will lay a clutch of five or six eggs. Anyone who’s ever raised or tended chickens knows that a bird typically can only lay one egg a day. That means it takes the sparrow six days to lay her clutch, and when they start hatching there will be a five- to six-day gap between the first chick and the last. That might not sound like much, but when you consider that the newborns are ready to leave the nest by eight or nine days, a six-day gap is huge.

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No one seems to know how this happens, but when the eggs hatch, they all hatch within hours—not days—of each other. This allows the parent birds to care for their brood in one common growth time frame, so they don’t have to run around like sparrows with their heads chopped off, trying to care for six babies at six very different stages of development. This same magic is true for many other song birds. Nature is just plain amazing.

The bi-colored bill, a rusty cap, and a dark smudge in the middle of a plain chest are some ways to identify the American Tree Sparrow—if you can get them to sit still long enough for you to see those details.

Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.