Bird Identification – The Sparrow Tribe

Like the poor, the sparrows are always with us. There is not a day in the year when you cannot find at least one member of the great tribe which comprises one-seventh of all our birds—by far the largest North American family. What is the secret of their triumphant numbers?

Many members of the hardy, prolific clan, wearing dull brown and gray-streaked feathers, in perfect colour harmony with the grassy, bushy places or dusty roadsides where they live, are usually overlooked by enemies in search of a dinner. Undoubtedly their protective colouring has much to do with their increase. They are small birds mostly, not one so large as a robin.

Sparrows being seed eaters chiefly, although none of the tribe refuses insect meat in season, and all give it to their nestlings, there is never a time when they cannot find food, even at the frozen North where some weedy stalks project above the snow. They are not fastidious. Fussy birds, like fussy people, have a hard time in this world; but the whole sparrow tribe, with few exceptions, make the best of things as they find them and readily adapt themselves to whatever conditions they meet. How wonderfully that saucy little gamin, the English sparrow, has adjusted himself to this new land!

Members of the more aristocratic finch and grosbeak branches of the family, however, who wear brighter clothes, pay the penalty by decreasing numbers as our boasted civilisation surrounds them. Gay feathers afford a shining mark. Naturally grosbeaks prefer to live among protective trees. They are delightful singers, and so, indeed, are some of their plain little sparrow cousins.

All the members of the family have strong, conical bills well suited to crush seeds, and gizzards, like a chicken’s, to grind them fine. These little grist-mills within the birds’ bodies extract all the nourishment there is from the seed. The sparrow tribe, you will notice, do immense service by destroying the seeds of weeds, which, but for them, would quickly overrun the farmer’s fields and choke his crops. Because these hardy gleaners can pick up a living almost anywhere, they do not need to make very long journeys every spring and autumn. Their migrations are comparatively short when undertaken at all. As a rule their flight is laboured, slow, and rather heavy—just the opposite from the wonderfully swift and graceful flight of the swallows.