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Henry Detwiler: Coax white-throated sparrows to your southern Illinois bird feeders

  • The yellow lores on the white-throated sparrow are quite striking.

    The yellow lores on the white-throated sparrow are quite striking.
    photos Courtesy of Henry Detwiler

  • As April progresses, keep an eye out for the vibrant yellow Prothonotary Warbler, a woodlands breeder.

    As April progresses, keep an eye out for the vibrant yellow Prothonotary Warbler, a woodlands breeder.

  • Want to attract even more white-throated sparrows to your feeders? Set up a brush pile next to the feeder.

    Want to attract even more white-throated sparrows to your feeders? Set up a brush pile next to the feeder.

 
By Henry Detwiler
Birds columnist
updated: 4/10/2022 11:33 AM

Sparrows are unquestionably difficult to identify, especially if they remain hidden in the brush.

Fortunately, during winter and early spring, many of them will visit seed feeders and they can be studied at your leisure. Song Sparrows, towhees, juncos and White-throated Sparrows will all happily devour millet, sunflower and other types of seed that you put out in your yard.

Of the roughly 17 species of sparrows that sometimes visit southern Illinois, the White-throated Sparrow is the most common winter visitor.

This small bird (6.75" in length) is not as colorful as many of our resident birds (like the Northern Cardinal or Blue Jay), but its warm browns, bright white eyebrow and throat, and yellow lores (eye spots) are quite striking.

Males and females are alike. Juvenile and first-winter birds are much duller, and may be a challenge to identify. The White-throated Sparrow breeds in seven of the northernmost states and in all the Canadian provinces, raising three to six young in a nest on or near to the ground; it migrates south to Illinois and other southern states once fall commences.

The bird's diet consists mainly of seeds and berries, and ground-dwelling insects. In winter they are quite fond of birdseed. These birds have a lovely wavering whistled song which they often belt out in spring -- perhaps one of the easiest bird songs to recognize and imitate -- "Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody."

These sparrows are often found in yards and readily come to birdfeeders, and to birdseed that you spread on the ground. If you build a brush pile next to your feeding platform, you'll attract even more sparrows. In the countryside, they are also commonly found in brush and fields throughout our area. Crab Orchard NWR and Pyramid State Recreation Area are just two locations that have lots of weedy fields and brush that these and other sparrows love.

Other wintering sparrows that you can still spot before they migrate north in April are Fox, Swamp, White-crowned, and during some years American Tree-Sparrow.

During the spring and summer months, some of our breeding sparrows to look for are: Song (prefers wet areas); Chipping (likes parks); Field (pasture and brush); and the locally common Henslow's (broomsedge fields and pastures).

If you've never tried "pishing," try it out to attract White-throated Sparrows. To pish, pucker your lips and blow out, making a shushing "psssh psssh" sound. In addition to drawing out curious sparrows, it is very effective at luring in curious Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

Current regional sightings
With the return of spring, this is the time to start looking for migrant birds heading north back to their breeding grounds, and the first returning residents that breed here in southern Illinois.

In the resident category, Eastern Phoebe (a flycatcher) and Louisiana Waterthrush (a big warbler) have already returned to Little Grand Canyon and Sahara Woods. Both these birds like rocky streams in the Shawnee Hills.

The Pine Warbler is another early returning resident; they've been spotted in a number of places around the Shawnee National Forest, at Marburry Arboretum in Carbondale, and at Sahara Woods. As the name suggests, look for them high up in pine groves.

As April progresses, keep an eye out for the beautiful Yellow-throated Warbler, the colorful Northern Parula, and the vibrant yellow Prothonotary Warbler, all woodlands breeders. The peak of migration is usually the last week of April through the first week in May, at which time you might be able to spot 20-30 different types of warblers on a really good day of birding.

Note: If you're looking for additional ideas about where to go birding in southern Illinois, please consider my new book, Finding Birds in Southern Illinois. It's available at http://www.southwestbirders.com/.

• About the author: Carbondale is my hometown, where I started birding 50 years ago. I spent an exciting 16 years as a bird guide, and have penned bird-finding books for five Arizona, California and Illinois counties. Reach me at HenryDetwiler@earthlink.net.