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Nature’s View: Harris’s Sparrow: Iowa’s largest sparrow

Ray Harden rayharden2@aol.com
Ray Harden rayharden2@aol.com
A Harris’s Sparrow was named after ornithologist John James Audubon in honor of his traveling companion Edward Harris.  He discovered the bird in 1843.
A Harris’s Sparrow was named after ornithologist John James Audubon in honor of his traveling companion Edward Harris. He discovered the bird in 1843.

There was fight taking place on my platform bird feeder. A big stranger, a Harris’s Sparrow, had flown in and two male house sparrows were trying to drive him away. The two smaller sparrows pecked at him and hit him with their wings, but the big guy stood his ground and fought back. After a few unsuccessful attacks the house sparrows gave up and flew away. The new arrival began eating the seeds without interruption. The Harris’s sparrow is a stout looking bird 7 ½ inches long. That may not seem big but he is 20 percent larger than the 6 ¼ inch long house sparrow.

The Harris’s Sparrow is not a common winter bird in central Iowa, I only see a couple of them a year. Central Iowa is on the eastern edge of their winter home range. They are more commonly seen in southwest Iowa. The birds’ main wintering area is a narrow strip of the western Great Plains, from southern Nebraska to Texas. In the spring they fly over a thousand miles to their summer breeding ground in the northern parts of Canada. Birds that have been banded by ornithologists show a strong homing instinct; they come back to their same territory every year. The banding studies also show that the birds have an average life span of two and one-half years. The oldest recorded Harris’s Sparrow lived to be eight and one-half years old. The Harris’s Sparrow is a handsome bird. An adult has a black crown, throat, and chest. It has a gray face with a pinkish cone shaped bill. Its back and wings are brown like most sparrows. The males and females have similar markings. The bird was named by the famous ornithologist John James Audubon in honor of his traveling companion Edward Harris. Audubon discovered the bird in Kansas on his western trip in 1843. He later found out that it had been identified ten year earlier by another scientist, James Nuttall; he called the bird a morning finch. Probably because Audubon was better know his name is the one that is used today. But it wasn’t until 1934 that scientists from Cornell University discovered the birds nesting area in the Northwest Territories of northern Canada. They build their nest in mossy bogs and shrubby trees at the edge of the arctic tundra.

Their diet is about 90% seeds and berries. When they are raising young they depend on insects, spiders, and worms to provide the young with protein and fat for energy. They often feed in the open in small flocks. They feed on the ground or on platform feeders, usually staying close to cover and when they are frightened they will fly high into trees for protection from predators. This is a different behavior from most other sparrows; they fly low into shrubs or into dense grass for cover.

When Harris’s Sparrows are in a flocks there is a definite pecking order; the oldest and darkest marked male is the dominate bird. To prove this ornithologists bleached the head of the dominate birds and darkened the heads of young males. The result was a complete role reversal. The younger birds began to behave in a dominate manner. While the older birds that had their heads bleached were forced in to more and more combative situations and soon they began to behave like subordinates. It is not a common bird in central Iowa. If you see a sparrow that looks darker and larger than other sparrows, look closely it might be a Harris’s Sparrow.

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