Mixing it up in skittering flocks, there’s a host of sparrows noshing now.
The little brown jobs are in seedy gardens, on lawns, or at the tangles at the edges of open fields.
For if, for everything there is a season, it’s their turn.
“It’s a perfect time to look for sparrows,” said Stefan Martin, habitat steward at Deer Pond Farm, the Connecticut Audubon’s nature center in Sherman. Martin led a sparrow walk there last week. He’ll lead another on Nov. 10, starting at 9 a.m.
And they are, for birds that get clumped together and overlooked, an interesting bunch. Some sparrows are year-rounders here. Some stay for the summer, others are snowbirds. The population changes through the seasons.
So does their diet. In the summer, they’re insect-eaters. But now, when fall plants are ripe with seeds, their hard, rounded beaks are made for cracking them open.
“September, October and November are really great sparrow times,” said Jenny Dickson, director of the wildlife division at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
They’re not big or flashy. They take a bit of work to know. But subtlety has its rewards.
And they’re not hard to find. The sparrow family is not small.
“We’ve had 27 different species recorded in the state,” said Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society.
Some are common. Two are endangered in Connecticut, one existentially so.
The ubiquitous city bird — the house sparrow, or English sparrow — doesn’t belong here. It’s an Old World species brought to New York City in 1852 by bird enthusiast Eugene Schieffelin to combat an infestation of linden moths eating its way through Manhattan’s greenery.
The house sparrow did that. But it also multiplied like crazy, then drove away native species, damaged flower beds, and feasted on butterflies. There are now 540 million house sparrows in the U.S. and they’re considered a non-native invasive species. (Schieffelin doubled down on this. In 1890, he introduced starlings to Manhattan — another Old World species that’s taken over North America by the millions, from Alaska to Newfoundland to Mexico.)
The sparrows that do belong here are members of the Emberizine family.
It includes two species that aren’t particularly sparrowy — towhees and juncos. The rest are cut out of the same brown cloth. They’re small and brown and striped. Some have clear, unmarked breasts. Some have striped breasts.
There are social, congregating in mixed flocks. Chipping sparrows don’t mob a white-throated sparrow if one stops by for a meal.
It’s learning the differences that makes some birders sparrow devotees.
“It does take a little time and effort to learn them,” the DEEP’s Dickson said. “It’s a challenge.”
But the differences are there. On last week’s sparrow walk, Martin explained to Marianne Loomis of Ridgefield how to sort out savannah sparrows from song sparrows.
“The streaking on savannah sparrows looks like it’s been drawn with a pencil,” he said. “On song sparrows, it looks like it’s been drawn with a marker.”
Many sparrows favor thick bushy cover. Others, like white-throated sparrows and fox sparrows, will venture out to scratch seed at winter feeders.
The two endangered sparrow species in the state are the grasshopper sparrow and the saltmarsh sparrow.
Grasshopper sparrows are small and buff-breasted. They like dry grasslands, a habitat that’s mostly gone in the state. As a result, they’re a native species that’s disappearing.
“There’s only two or three places in the state where they nest,” Comins said.
While they’re endangered in Connecticut, there are other places in the U.S. where they’re doing fine. What their loss means to the state is the loss of grassland habitat and all the other species that need those open fields as well.
“It’s that biodiversity,” Dickson said of grasshopper sparrow habitat “We’re losing that.”
As their name suggests, saltmarsh sparrows nest in the salt marshes along the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Virginia. Comins said Connecticut is a globally significant nesting site for them.
They are endangered, in part, because humans have destroyed a lot of salt marshes.
“All their habitat on the East Coast could fit into Connecticut,” Comins said.
But these sparrows time their nesting, hatching and fledging their young to the 28 days between spring high tides. Because of climate change and rising sea levels, those nests are getting flooded out, their nests destroyed.
As a result, saltmarsh sparrows may be gone by midcentury.
“They’re likely to go extinct,” Comins said.