The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Monday, December 30, 2002

Photo by Mary Curry

Birds and Beyond
Back-road Birds
Claire Curry, December 2002, Wise County Messenger, © 2003

Driving the back roads of Wise County, you may have noticed occasional flocks of birds scattering into the brush-covered fences as your car approaches. There are quite a few species here that frequent fencerows. Some of the most abundant are cardinals, sparrows, juncos, and towhees.

Cardinals are the easiest to identify, and most familiar to most people. Male Northern Cardinals are bright red, and the females are a subdued brown with hints of red on the wings and tail. If your car windows are rolled down, you may hear a cheery and metallic “chink!” call as they fly up.

In addition to cardinals, several kinds of sparrows and their relatives can been seen along the roads (and in other brushy areas.) White-crowned, White-throated, Harris’s, and Field sparrows are among the most common sparrows along wooded, brushy fences. White-crowned Sparrows, as their name implies, have a black and white, crisply striped crown in adult plumage. Immatures have the same pattern, but in shades of brown.

A similar bird, the White-throated Sparrow, also has white stripes on its head. It, however, has a bright white throat and a small patch of yellow near the beak on the stripe above its eye. This sparrow also comes in a “tan-striped” color morph, which is a rich brown and tan version of the “white-striped” form I have just described.

Instead of stripes, the Harris’s Sparrow sports black around its bill, eyes, and throat. A pink bill, white underside, and brown cheeks round out the Harris’s Sparrow’s plumage, making for a handsome sparrow. Immature Harris’s Sparrows have less black on their faces than the adults.

Unlike the three previous sparrows, the Field Sparrow doesn’t seem to have many markings at all. Its face is washed in subtle peach-brown and grays, with a white eyering and a pink bill. Field Sparrows are also daintier and smaller than their previously-mentioned cousins.

Juncos put a crack in the “brown and streaky” sparrow mold, but they are sparrows nonetheless. A dapper little bird, the Dark-eyed Junco is covered in neat gray with a white belly. Females are usually tinged with varying amounts of brown, but still are quite pretty. Juncos shuffle around in the leaf litter, jumping up while moving their pink feet back and forth and tossing leaves out of the way.

The last bird on my list, the Spotted Towhee, is a larger relative of the sparrows. Towhees are about cardinal-sized, but very different in plumage from a cardinal. Male Spotted Towhees have a black hood, back, and wings (with white spots on the wings and back), rufous sides, and a white belly. Females have the same pattern with brown replacing the black. When a towhee is flying away, you can see little white corners on its tail.

Next time you drive around, be sure to keep your eyes open for these and other beautiful back-road birds!


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