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When I was a kid, we called Dark-Eyed Juncos “snow birds.” Until I started bird watching later in life, I thought that was their actual name. To us, seeing a snow bird was a sign. It meant that it was going to snow, leading to snowmen, snow forts, saucering down the side hill and a day off of school. I suspect this childhood joy may still be a little part of the reason that I still love these little birds today. Even today, when I know that birds don’t cause the weather, I still feel joy when I see the first of the juncos and their winter pals, the White-Throated Sparrows arrive in mid-fall. Here is what I do in my yard to make sparrows happy during the winter.
While the more brightly colored birds of the back yard like American Goldfinches and Northern Cardinals, often get the most love, there is something about sparrows that is endearing. They are usually bold and energetic little things. Often some of the first to come out of hiding after a hawk has left the immediate area, they get used to you so you can usually approach them fairly closely.
They can be feisty too. I can usually tell when a neighborhood cat is around the brush pile. The little flock of sparrows sit at the top and scold him.
Sparrows in my yard are mostly seasonal because unlike most birds, I only feed them seasonally. Why? Because my favorite sparrows, Dark-Eyed Juncos and White-Throated Sparrows, are only found in my area from mid-October to mid-April. After that, they migrate back north into Canada.
Feeding Sparrows Millet
Once I see the first of these birds arrive in the fall, I start broadcasting a few handfuls of white proso millet seed on the ground near the closest brush pile each day. The sparrows use the brush pile as cover. They venture out from it to grab some seed, retreating back when they feel threatened.
Millet is a seed they love. If you put some out and a sparrow finds it, the next day there are bound to be more sparrows and then even more as the news spreads in subsequent days.
Ground Feeding Birds
Sparrows are mostly ground feeding birds. House Sparrows and some Chipping Sparrows will also eat from feeders. But in my yard, seeing other sparrows on one of the feeders is a rare event. And even the Chipping and House Sparrows seem to prefer seed on the ground. Occasionally a white-throat will pop up on a feeder to check things out and grab some seed. I’ve seen juncos do it a couple of times.
But otherwise, sparrows are on the ground, doing their funny little hop back dance to expose hidden seed. So while I normally don’t spread seed on the ground, for this I make an exception. I do try to not go too crazy with it though. Most of what I toss out there is eaten within a day. (Seed on the ground, especially once it gets wet, can rot or get moldy.)
Millet Attracts Other Birds Too
White Proso millet, while a favorite of sparrows, unfortunately also is also welcome to some problem birds. Spreading millet, especially broadcasting over a wide area on the ground, can draw in the large mixed flocks of Red-Winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, European Starlings and Brown-Headed Cowbirds. To me, these flocks can be a problem when they descend on the yard. They tend to force out most or all of the other birds while they are there and can eat a lot of seed too!
I’ve tried timing the scattering of the millet to early morning or late afternoon, thinking that will give the local birds a chance at the seed before a mixed flock arrives or after they leave. I’m not sure that it really helped. Maybe a little, but birds eat all day long so a visiting flock can still be a problem to the yard’s regulars.
I have also tried tossing the seed right into the brush pile, thinking that would favor smaller birds over the large flocks. But European Starlings push their way in anyway. And tossing seed into the brush pile only encourages squirrels to get into the piles looking for seed, spooking the sparrows.
Feeding Sparrows Nyjer Seed
My most recent experiment is to try a different seed. Dark-Eyed Juncos, White-Throated Sparrows and the occasional Chipping or Fox Sparrow are often found under the goldfinches’ nyjer feeders in the side yard.
So I tried scattering some extra nyjer on the ground in the back yard away from the feeders. When there is nyjer there, Dark-Eyed Juncos favor it. I’m not sure if they like it better than millet or if there is just less competition for the nyjer.
I tried putting a bit of nyjer in a ground feeder, thinking it would stay drier because of its gridded bottom that allows water to drain. But birds completely ignored it, choosing seed on the ground next to it. I wonder if the feeder’s gridded bottom gets in the way of their jump back method of exposing seed. It’s a theory anyway.
Nyjer Instead of Millet
I’ve took things a little farther and tried sprinkling just nyjer and not millet in both areas. Dark-Eyed Juncos continue to favor it and White-Throated Sparrows seem quite content to eat it too.
House Sparrows seem to concentrate on stray bits of sunflower hearts under the feeders or the odd bit of millet still to be found. I’m not saying they won’t eat nyjer, but it doesn’t seem to be something they are excited about.
If you spread millet on the ground or the sparrows and you are despairing with late winter mixed flocks pushing out sparrows and other birds, get a little bit of nyjer. See if your local sparrows will go for it. Most other birds (except finches) won’t be interested.
The big flocks may still come to get whatever is in your feeders. But my theory is that having a lot of seed spread widely on the ground is especially attractive to large flocks because they can spread out and the whole flock gets to eat. Reduce the access area a little and it can make your yard a little less appealing to them.
Sparrows Love Cover & Water
Sparrows, like other birds, also appreciate cover and water. We have several brush piles in the yard for cover and that tends to be where the sparrows hang out. They make forays out to eat seed and then fly back to the pile whenever they are spooked. (Note: Conversely, if you need to get House Sparrows OUT of your yard, getting rid of close cover can help tremendously.)
We also have a number of birdbaths. Two are heated for the winter, one with the addition of a birdbath de-icer. For the other, I swap out the regular bowl for a heated bowl. While sparrows are drawn to the yard by millet, the cover and water sweetens the deal for them.
Stopping the Millet
Once the last of the White-Throated Sparrows and the Dark-Eyed Juncos leave the yard to head north in April, I stop offering millet completely. The House Sparrows leave too once the millet is gone and the mixed flocks tend to move on too.
I don’t see more than an occasional sparrow in the yard throughout most of the spring and summer months. It is only when autumn rolls around again that the white-throats and the juncos reappear and bring their energy to the fall and winter yard again.
Learn More About Sparrows
- White-Throated Sparrow on All About Birds
- Dark-Eyed Junco on All About Birds
- Chipping Sparrow on All About Birds
- Song Sparrow on All About Birds
- Fox Sparrow on All About Birds
- House Sparrow on All About Birds
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird Academy Sparrows Course
- How Juncos Changed Their Migration, Behavior, and Plumage in a Matter of Decades (Cornell All About Birds online article.)
Learn More About Maryland Birds
See my post on Central Maryland Backyard Birds.
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