The sparrow is the Rodney Dangerfield of nature — it gets no respect.
Birders have been known to dismiss members of the family as “LBJs” — little brown jobs.
Even the Bible takes a swipe at the sparrow’s insignificance in Luke 12:7, “And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.”
“There are sparrows that breed in Illinois, and others like white throats and white crowns are only here in the winter,” said Mike Ward, an ornithologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey. “We have 10 that come down here in the winter and nine that breed in Illinois. They are all kind of brown, kind of cryptic.”
There are even two species that are called sparrows — the house sparrow and Eurasian tree sparrow — that aren’t actually members of the sparrow family. They were introduced to the United States in the late 19th century.
Granted, sparrows aren’t the flashiest birds to live in the Midwest. They are among the most common, at least in terms of numbers. Most people think of them as common in appearance, until they get a closer look.
The white-throated sparrow wears a colorful crown and has a bleach-white patch on its throat. The white-crowned sparrow is as aptly named as any bird species. Both the white-throated and white-crowned sparrows are regular visitors to bird feeders in Southern Illinois.
“White crowns breed in Canada white throats start breeding in the northern third of Wisconsin and farther north,” Ward said. ”They aren’t going a huge distance, but they are migrating quite a ways. They also migrate at night.”
Paradoxically, despite their colorful markings, many sparrows are next to impossible to see in their favored habitat. Other common sparrows in Illinois include the Savannah sparrow, field sparrow, chipping sparrow, song sparrow and Henslow’s sparrow.
“Most sparrows like grasslands or shrub lands,” Ward said. “Most breed on or near the ground.
“They are hard to see well. LeConte's sparrows, when you see them well, they have different shades of yellow. You just don’t see them well. It’s amazing when they get down on the ground how they can blend in so well.”
Sparrows feed on insects in the spring and summer and are rarely found at feeders during that time frame. Most sparrow populations are in good shape.
“Some are pretty common, chipping sparrows are all the place,” Ward said. “Grasshopper sparrows, there aren’t many pastures out there, so they are in decline. The ones that are able to deal with humans are doing alright. Some like wet grasslands and some like wet grasslands. Just like any other species, you have winners and losers.”
Ward also said sparrows live more colorful lives than people would imagine.
There are white-striped and tan-striped morphs of the white-throated sparrow. The male white morphs are attractive to females, but are poor parents. The tan morph is less attractive to females, but is a good provider.
Field sparrows appear to be monogamous, but the females are known to have trysts during the night.
“It’s a lot more soap-operaish than you’d like to think,” Ward said.