Harris Sparrow - Dressed To Impress

by The Bug Lady

I’ll never forget the cold snowy morning about 4 years ago when I was determined to take some interesting bird photos with my new camera. I arose at 7:00AM on a Saturday morning, now I am sure most of you are thinking to yourselves that this hour isn’t all that early, but believe me when I say that for me this showed great
determination in my quest to photograph my quarry. After heading outside and discovering blistering cold temperatures and a wind that was blowing like Old Man North had a vendetta against any and all creatures in his path, I was seriously second guessing the wisdom of leaving my nice warm bed. After an hour I considered myself certifiably insane to be outside when not one bird had showed itself (even they had enough sense to stay in where it was warm).

I began talking to myself for a lack of anything else to do, making statements much to the effect of “here birdie birdie” Now I’m guessing this is crossing some sort of line into the “crazy bird lady realm”, but hey it worked, I swear. Suddenly there appeared a house sparrow, now I realize that there is nothing particularly special about a house sparrow but after what seemed like hours of absolutely no life stirring I was willing to take whatever I could get. This bird was gone almost as soon as it appeared, and at this point I remembered the camera. Stupid bird!

Then incredibly it was as if this lone bird flew off and sent some invisible message via bird mail that there was a feast to be had, just follow me. Before I knew what was happening there were literally hundreds of sparrows landing all over the yard, on the ground, high in the trees, on the feeders, twittering and scolding each other. I was in awe, so much so that I completely forgot my purpose for being outside; all I could do was watch the activity around me. Suddenly I noticed one bird in particular…this bird appeared different somehow, for one thing he was much larger, actually towering over the much smaller house sparrows. It looked like a sparrow; it had the familiar brown and white markings splashed with black. In fact he looked like he was dressed for a formal evening on the town, complete with tuxedo markings. He had the most magnificent crown of black on his head. I was able to determine by its appearance that it was indeed a sparrow, but which one? I had never seen a bird like it before. I watched it hop around the yard eating fallen bird seed. I looked all over for another like it, but to no avail…it seemed to be a minority among many.

I remembered my camera at this point and started snapping pictures. I had no idea if what I was shooting would come out, but I kept taking pictures anyway. I then went to get my field guide to see if I could identify this little stranger to my yard. I went straight to the section on sparrows and located a bird that appeared to look exactly like my little visitor. The guide identified him as a “Harris Sparrow” a large cousin to the common house sparrow as well as the fox, song and field sparrows and many others that fall into this family of small gregarious birds. They are much larger than the sparrows we would normally see; in fact they are almost cardinal size. Measuring approximately 7 ½ inches in length.

The guide stated they are ground feeders, meaning they will pick up seeds and other favorite food off the ground instead of landing in feeders, preferring instead to eat what other birds drop or that which falls from the feeders. I realized after reading further that I was indeed blessed that day to see this little bird. Harris Sparrows are only in our area in the winter, and the area they encompass is quite small, in fact it is a narrow corridor right in the center of the United States, and only a very small portion of this area falls into Missouri. During the summer they are further north in the tundra, in Northern Canada, where their breeding grounds are located. The number of these wonderful little birds has fallen; the reason for this could be anything from habitat loss, to predation to pesticide usage.

As you can see by the pictures I was lucky enough to get a few pictures of this unique looking bird, in fact one of them has an almost comical quality to it. Those little legs running for all they are worth. Sometimes it pays to get outside on a cold morning and sit and watch what is going on in your backyard. Had I decided to stay in bed that morning I would have missed a wonderful opportunity to see such a beautiful bird. It has been several years since he visited my yard, and to this day I have only ever seen one more of this gorgeous species(Second picture). I feel truly blessed that he chose my yard that morning for his first meal of the day. Look closely to nature and you to might be surprised at what you find.

If you'd like to read more articles like this one, follow the links below to  find The Bug Lady's blogs, which are both very good. MOBugs is a wonderful blog about the insects that can be found in and around Missouri. It has been featured here at Nature Center Magazine in our Nature Site Of The Week. Explore Missouri is an excellent blog about all of the other wildlife around Missouri. It isn't updated as often as MOBugs, but if you leave her some encouraging comments I'm sure that will change.

Now go and visit one or both of her blogs. You'll be very glad you did. And make sure you leave her a nice comment to let her know you were there.

Explore Missouri


  1. Great find! It would have been very easy to miss the oddball in the group.

  2. Well...at least you got something out of your....."early" morning!!

  3. What a marvelous story. I felt I was right there with you.


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