Harris's Sparrow

So, let’s talk more about the Harris’s Sparrow.

This big, chunky sparrow is one of Canada’s few endemic breeders (Wikipedia says the only one, but I trust Cornell more.) It is the largest of the Zonotrichia sparrows, with little cousins including the White-throated, White-crowned, and Golden-crowned Sparrows that already occupy my life list, and the Rufous-collared Sparrow down in Mexico and points south. This genus contains some of my favorite sparrows, although it is hard to put my finger on why. All of these birds have distinctive head (and in some cases, like the Harris’s, throat) markings — “Zonotrichia” translates roughly to “band of hair”. Maybe these badges, which make identification relatively easy, account for my fondness. For the Harris’s sparrow, these markings play an important role in determining social hierarchy — a bird with its black throat-patched painted over to be larger and darker will immediately receive a status boost on returning to the flock.

Unlike all other U.S. Zonotrichias, the Harris’s eschews the coasts. Both summer and winter it sticks to the grassy heart of the North American continent, ground-feeding, ground-nesting, and its occasional vagrancies elicit excitement both east and west. It occupies a strange space where ecology and birding do not precisely overlap — not rare, but rare for most of us to see. Of Least Concern, but worth stirring up a hotline or list serv over. Exotic and mysterious — its nest wasn’t documented for science until the 1930s — but still, a sparrow.

Immature Harris’s Sparrow by Julia Adamson, photographer in the Saskatoon area.

Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at DaysAtDunrovin.com.