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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

Get out and enjoy Oklahoma’s wintering visitors

STILLWATER, Okla. – Short days and cold nights. In a nutshell, that is winter in Oklahoma.

Oftentimes, the drop in temperature translates into a lot of lazy days, bunkered in the house, sitting next to a fire, enjoying the Christmas decorations and sipping hot cocoa. With the family gathered around the flat screen, many Oklahomans are missing a lot of what nature is providing this time of year.

A quick peek at the distribution maps in a bird field guide reveals Oklahoma is the heart of wintering sparrows. More than 20 species can be regularly found in the state during the winter months.

“Often, large flocks of sparrows can be found by driving rural roads and watching for movement in the adjacent roadside cover,” said Dwayne Elmore, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension wildlife specialist. “These flocks will commonly contain species such as the savannah, white-throated, white-crowned and Lincoln’s sparrows.”

Many sparrow species nest during the summer in locations far to the north, and their major food sources, seeds for most, but also insects for a few, become scarce and/or inaccessible with cold weather and deep snow. Oklahoma winters offer relatively moderate conditions and ample food.

“Most sparrow species inhabit open grasslands or shrubby dense thickets within grasslands, shrublands and woodlands,” said Scott Loss, assistant professor in OSU’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management. “Oklahoma has a broad diversity of these different vegetation types that allow a large number of sparrow species to find the habitat they need to live through the winter.”

To the untrained eye, this group of birds is regularly lumped into the “little brown bird” category. While many of these species do look similar, with practice and patience, they can be readily identified.

Dark Eyed Junco.jpgDark-Eyed Junco

Harris sparrow.jpg Harris Sparrow

LeContes.jpg LeConte's Sparrow

“It can be tough to sort them out as they move rapidly from between shrubs,” Elmore said. “However, the sheer number of birds allows for plenty of chances to view field marks.”

The birds have distinguishing marks with some species more vibrant than others. One of the more common sparrows feasting this winter in Oklahoma is the dark-eyed junco, which is a common visitor to bird feeders. This species has bright white tail feathers that flash and catch the eye while the bird is in flight.

“These birds are generally near wooded cover and primarily feed on the ground,” Elmore said.

One of the more striking sparrows is the large Harris’s sparrow. This attractive bird dons a black bib and a pink bill and will be found near shrub cover in the grasslands of Oklahoma. It has unmistakable plumage and is a bold, approachable sparrow.

“Harris’s sparrows are abundant and easy to see during winter, and we are lucky to be in the center of their relatively small wintering range that only covers part of the southern Great Plains,” Loss said. “It’s also our largest sparrow, approaching the size of a cardinal, and will readily come to bird feeders.”

This species is really unique in that it is the only bird species that only nests within Canada. Because of their remote breeding area in the Canadian tundra, they were one of the last North American species to have their nesting location found, which wasn’t until 1931.

For a challenge, Oklahomans can try to locate the secretive LeConte’s sparrow. This small, straw-colored bird is found in tall grass cover. It seldom is with other birds and will wait until you are very close to flush at your feet.

Once flushed, it will quickly dive back into grass cover. Look for the heavily streaked back and the LeConte’s tendency to drag its tail when in flight.

Another popular, yet difficult-to-find species is the large fox sparrow.

“One of my favorite sparrows, this bird is uncommon within Oklahoma and seems to show up after snow events,” Elmore said. “It typically forages on the ground and is often visible along forest edges, vigorously scratching the ground in search of food. The fox sparrow is usually alone or in small groups.”

A bird with the opposite social structure, the Lapland longspur, can be located in bare crop fields in open country similar to the tundra where they breed. These birds often form large flocks, containing hundreds of birds at times and seem to be constantly in motion.

“If you are looking for a challenge this winter, consider a day of slowly driving gravel roads looking for sparrows. Finding 10 species in a day is not bad, but 15 species is certainly possible,” Elmore said. “Regardless, you will almost certainly see something new and hopefully realize that the ‘little brown birds’ are not so dull after all.”


Sean Hubbard
Communications Specialist
Agricultural Communications Services
157 Agriculture North
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078
Phone: 405-744-4490
Fax: 405-744-5739

Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078

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