One of the things I like about the colder months in South Texas is the arrival of the wintering sparrows. Chipping sparrows are abundant. These gregarious little birds form flocks of 20 or more. I often walk up on a flock foraging on the ground, searching for tiny seeds in the grasses. I don’t see the birds on the ground. However, they see me and rise in a fluttering mass to the nearest tree. There the flock sits, usually in plain sight, and I can count the individuals. Other sparrow species aren’t so accommodating.

Many of the wintering sparrows are skulkers, and they hide out in the understory and brushy edges of the woods. Typically, these species can be attracted to a feeder if it is placed close to the woodland edge or near undergrowth. At first, the timid sparrows will only creep out to grab a few seeds on the ground around a feeder, and I always scatter a handful of small seeds near the feeder to lure them in. A braver bird might land on a platform feeder, but most of them seem to prefer to scratch among the leaf litter.

White-throated sparrows seem to like the understory around live oaks. The thick leaf duff hides all sorts of seeds. A white-throated sparrow can be heard foraging before you see it. It “rattles noisily in leaves, scratching with both feet at once and often digging in the earth with its bill.” I like to stir in a few millet and sorghum seeds into the duff to give these birds something to do.

White-throated sparrows have a delightful song. Typically, the song is reserved for the breeding grounds, but you can sometimes hear the sparrows sing in late winter. The song is a clear-whistled “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” with the “peabodies” virtually all on the same pitch. It is quite plaintive and sweet. And it is easily repeatable as a mnemonic phrase to point it out to someone who is hearing it for the first time.

Another skulker in the brush is Lincoln’s sparrow. These delicate little sparrows have finely streaked buff-colored breasts with distinct buffy malar (cheek) stripes. A broad gray eyebrow line outlines the bird’s face. Lincoln’s sparrows are daintier than the white-throated sparrows and are less likely to stir up the leaf duff while foraging. However, you can get a good look at them as they carefully pick up seeds from the ground around a feeder.

Lincoln’s sparrows are among the most musical of sparrows. The males sing a wren-like series of trills, gurgles, and buzzes on their breeding grounds. “Each song starts with two or three bell-like notes before bursting into bubbly trills and gurgles that rapidly change pitch.” The song is short, lasting only two seconds, but delightful. If Lincoln’s sparrows come to your yard in winter, you may get to hear them try out their songs before they depart in spring.

If you put out a variety of bird food, you are more likely to see various birds. We use black oil sunflower seeds as our primary birdseed. Not only do cardinals, titmice, jays, Audubon’s orioles, and woodpeckers like this food, smaller birds like sparrows and finches can crack these thin-shelled seeds, too. Any sunflower seeds knocked off the platform during the bigger birds’ feeding frenzy attract the milder-mannered sparrows. Still, I put out several whole, in-shell raw peanuts each morning to entertain the green jays. While the jays are greedily grabbing these treats, the gentler species go for the sunflower seeds.

Of course, all these birds will come to water, particularly if the water is freshly dripped into a low container. A few feet away from a feeder, a water source will attract many more species than food alone. Sometimes, they will even take a bath.

Listen for the sweet trills of Lincoln’s sparrows and the “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” song of the white-throated sparrows as the new year rolls around to spring. Chipping sparrows might join in with their long, mechanical “chip, chip, chip” buzzes. Even if these birds don’t sing for you, you can still enjoy their antics around the feeders.

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