Backyard Birds I: Finches and Sparrows

There is no better place to start learning the birds than in your own yard. It is much easier and more natural to get acquainted with the limited set of birds that you see regularly, rather than diving immediately into the likely overwhelming confusion of a full guide to the 1000+ species of North American birds. Start reading with Goodnight Moon rather than Ulysses. Once you are a highly bird-literate person, though, remember that Goodnight Moon is still quite a nice book – your backyard birds are likewise inexhaustibly worthy of your attention and appreciation. Today, I’ll introduce two of the most obvious and important groups of backyard birds: the finches and the sparrows. (I cover the rest of my “top 20” backyard birds in Part II.)

The Finches

Small, colorful, birds that eat seeds, tend to gather in flocks, and have musical songs in spring. In almost any yard, if you put out a seed feeder, you will get finches.

House Finch

Identify: Females are brown and streaky, while males birds are easily recognized by their red breast and head. The exact tint of red can vary depending on the bird’s diet at feather-growing time; your classic house finch is a blood red (“linnets like wounds” says Berkeley poet Robert Hass), but sometimes they will be more orange- or apricot-colored. Field guides may confuse you with similar purple finches: the short answer is that those birds in your yard are house finches, while we have some purple finches in the woods.

Male – Risa George
Female – Mick Thompson

Get acquainted: The house finch is our most widespread and consistent feeder bird, or as old time ornithologist W.L. Dawson put it, “the bread-and-butter of the bird feast which life daily spreads before us.” So, 1) you almost certainly have them in your yard, and 2) that’s a nice thing. Dawson goes on to proclaim that “the home that is not surrounded by an investing halo of linnets, I hold it to be unblest” and I feel the same way (linnet is a nice old-fashioned name for this bird, abandoned by field guides but universally preferred among poets and bohemians). In addition to the not negligible virtues of abundance and colorfulness, house finches are also superb singers: listen for their lilting, musical songs, often ending with a distinctive upslurred veeer!

Lesser Goldfinch

Male lesser goldfinch – Nancy Frost

Identify: Males are bright yellow and have a black cap; females are a duller, somewhat green-yellow overall. Both have relatively muted, green-yellow backs. This is much the more common of our two goldfinch species (see below for the other one), widespread everywhere except densely forested areas. Field guides may confuse you with various yellow birds including warblers and orioles; the short answer is that if it is on your seed feeder, it’s a goldfinch.

Get acquainted: These small and musical finches particularly love hulled sunflower chips and will also eat the special finch seed called Nyjer. They are present year-round in our area, but tend to visit feeders much more during fall and winter. They are perhaps our second most commonly heard singer after house finches: listen to how their lively songs are more varied and disjointed than house finch songs, incorporating all kinds of different sounds and tones, including imitations of other birds. They have been ranked as the Third Most Talented Mimic among our native birds, after the familiar neighborhood mockingbird and the less familiar wildland bird the California thrasher.

Old-fashioned, out-of-use, but less judgmental name: green-backed goldfinch. I mention old names because while normal, non-birder people might casually discuss “goldfinches,” it would seem unusual for them to specify “lesser goldfinch” – it just feels too scientific, too taxonomic, not a spontaneous name that actual humans might give this bird upon seeing it. “Green-back” is more convivial – “there’s a big flock of green-backs on the feeder.” I think I’ll try to revive this.

American Goldfinch

Identify: As a first guideline of reasonable expectations, American goldfinches are significantly less abundant throughout Marin compared to lesser goldfinches, but will periodically appear in low numbers at most finch feeders, and may dominate in some areas near water. Males in summer are easy to recognize: brilliant neon yellow with orange beaks and legs (both are dull on lesser goldfinches) and with the bright gold extending onto the back (where lessers are a duller green-yellow). In winter, however, males lose their black foreheads and most of their color and are difficult to distinguish from females. Male lesser goldfinches, in contrast, do not lose their caps; a bright yellow goldfinch with a dark cap from September-March or so is a lesser goldfinch. At all times of year and in all plumages, Americans are larger than lessers and have white, rather than yellow, feathers under the tail.

Practice: Male American to top left, male lesser to top right, female lessers below

Get acquainted: Most people think of this bird as the bigger, brighter, less common goldfinch, all of which tends to elevate them in the popular imagination, which loves sparkles and novelty. And their colorfulness is undeniable – most yards will not see any birds more shockingly brilliant in color than a male American goldfinch in summer. But colorfulness is not the only meter for affection.

As their name of “American” goldfinch accurately suggests, this is a bird we share with the entire continent, while lesser goldfinches are a western specialty. If you are capable of a Whitmanian capaciousness (“the diverse! the compact! / The Pennsylvanian! the Virginian! the double Carolinian! / O all and each well-loved by me!” etc. etc.), feel free to embrace this bird, but I confess I tend to feel some bias towards the species that are more tied to a specific region. I have nothing against goldfinches of the double Carolinas, I just don’t have a spontaneous outpouring of affection towards them. New Jersey, Iowa, and Washington have all claimed it as their state bird, which makes it feel less like a sincere and committed monogamous relationship, if you know what I mean. How can one bird be the iconic representative of an east coast, midwest, and west coast state? In contrast, only one state has embraced the California quail – that makes more sense to me.

Pine Siskin

More Practice: One siskin, three American goldfinches in winter plumage – Henry T. Mclin

Identify: This small finch is about the size of a lesser goldfinch, but similar in streaky brown plumage to a female house finch. Uniquely, siskins have yellow highlights in their wings and tails, and have smaller, tapered beaks quite unlike the chunky beaks of house finches. So, if it’s streaky, it’s either a siskin or a house finch. If it has subtle yellow in wings and tail, it’s a siskin. Easy.

Get acquainted: We have some resident, year-round siskins living in and near forested areas, such as found at Indian Tree or more broadly in west and south Marin, but this bird is most notable as a yard bird in irregular “irruption” years when they come down from Canada in large numbers seeking food. You’ll see a few at a typical feeding station each winter; some years you will see none; and some years you will be besieged by a ravenous horde. 

The sparrows – and a bonus ground-feeder

Sparrows, juncos, and towhees all belong to the large sparrow family and share numerous traits: a somewhat chunky shape, beaks adapted for cracking seeds (though most will also eat insects), and a relatively more earthbound lifestyle than the weightless, agile finches who cling to grasses and feed on the outermost branches of trees. At the end, I’ve also thrown in the utterly unrelated mourning dove, which shares a similar ground-feeding habit, but is really here to make a nice round set of ten birds, and because it doesn’t fit in the groupings I have coming in Part II.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Identify: Generally easy to identify – only this sparrow has a golden crown – but note that they may change in appearance over the course of the season: their normal winter plumage shows only a dull yellow patch (as in the photo below), while their breeding plumage shown upon arrival or before departing features a thick black eyebrow and bright yellow crown (as in the comic).

Golden-crown – Becky Matsubara
Comic by bird and moon

Get acquainted: One of our two ubiquitous “winter sparrows,” arriving here in September and remaining until April, when they head up to Alaska to nest. Particularly notable in fall, when their clear, high, “oh-dear-me” song really stands out. Other mnemonics of similarly pathetic connotation include “I’m-so-tired” and “no-gold-here” (the mocking refrain heard by despondent Yukon gold miners). This is as good a place as any to note that while I’ve lumped these birds under the crude heading of “ground-feeders,” since scrounging around for fallen seeds is one of their typical behaviors, many of these birds including gold-crowns will also visit hanging feeders, even clinging to seemingly uncomfortable suet cages and the like when free food is on offer.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned sparrow – S. Hunt

Identify: The second of our two main winter sparrows. Usually easily identified by their bold black and white head stripes, but beware a frequent source of confusion: younger, “first winter” birds have brown and tan stripes rather than black and white. All white-crowns have rather yellow-orange beaks compared to the dull beaks of the similarly sized golden-crowned sparrows.

Get acquainted: Were it not for the unmistakable prominence of the gold-crowns’ fall songs, the white-crowns’ musical contributions might well be remarked on more often. Like their golden-crowned brethren, white-crowns often sing upon arriving here in fall, fresh from the nesting grounds. Their song starts with a similar high clear whistle, but only one: after the introductory whistle comes a variable jumble of fast notes with generally downward trend. Since they share a lot of habits and habitat, it is sometimes convenient to be able to refer to both of these two birds collectively: feel free to refer to the “crowned sparrows” or, if you want to speak in birder jargon, to “zonos” (short for their shared genus, Zonotrichia).

Dark-eyed Junco

Junco with mealworm – S. Hunt

Identify: Smaller than the crowned sparrows, with dark heads, brownish wings and flanks, and a lighter tan belly. Dark heads and dark eyes are fairly distinctive, but we do have some other dark-headed birds. Flycatching black phoebes are pure black and white only, and have a very different feeding style of making insect-catching sallies from a perch. Spotted towhees have dark heads too, but are much larger, have bolder rusty red sides contrasting with a white belly, have their namesake spots on the black wings, and lack the junco’s namesake dark eyes in favor of glowing demonic red stare balls.

Get acquainted: Juncos are present all year round in our area, but are most abundant and widespread in winter. During the spring nesting season, they are restricted to appropriate nesting sites in more wooded areas, with sufficient understory cover to conceal their ground nests. Their song is a prominent one in the soundtrack of early spring, before a bunch of migrants show up and start confusing the sonic landscape: listen for a dry trill about 3 seconds in length, continuing at a steady speed and on a single pitch.

California Towhee

Photo by Becky Matsubara

Identify: California towhees are large, chunky and clumsy birds, almost uniformly plain brown except for a rusty patch under their tail.

Get acquainted: Another of our most common birds, but unlike the preceding three sparrows, towhees do not gather into large flocks. Instead, each yard typically hosts one pair of towhees who will remain on site all year round, staying in touch with simple, “low battery warning” contact calls. Also known for entering open house doors and attacking their reflection in mirrors. So, they’re plain, unmusical, and unintelligent. But everyone loves them! Here’s Dawson again:

There is, honestly, no particular reason why we should be fond of this prosy creature, save that he is always around. In appearance, the bird is a bit awkward, slovenly, and uncouth…for color – never was a more hopeless drab…. He sings, perhaps? Not at all; his efforts at song are a farce, a standing joke…. Really, there is no reason why one should espouse the cause of this local ash-man. Yet I suppose there are few Californians who would willingly spare the homely, matter-of-fact presence of this bird under foot. Brown Towhees are just birds – the same way most of us are just folks.

– William Leon Dawson, The Birds of California, 1923

Spotted Towhee

Spotted Towhee – Ed Stetson

Identify: Black-headed, like juncos, but distinctly larger, and with bold whites, reds, and namesake spots that juncos lack. Striking and distinctive whenever they emerge from their shadowy realm of thick understory plants.

Get acquainted: This more glamorous towhee is common in woodlands and chaparral, as well as yards that have a similarly rich understory for cover and foraging. Unlike the earth-colored California towhee, which comfortably feeds out in the open, the dark and dappled spotted towhee is camouflaged for shadows and tangled cover. This means that they are not as ubiquitous in yards – where we tend to prune and tidy things – compared to their plain brown relatives. Even when they are present, they will sometimes be hard to see, but you may still hear the rustling of their almost diagnostically powerful, two-footed, kick-scratching feeding technique. Or their loud, mewing, irritated squeals:

Mourning Dove

Mourning Doves – Risa George

Identify: Our most common dove species, these relatively small members of the family lack the clear neck collar found on some of their relatives but do feature unique spots on the wings. Famous for their mournful, somewhat owl-like call: coo-AAHHH, coo, coo, coo. For auditory identification, note that 1) doves coo during the day, owls hoot at night, and 2) the mourning dove coo reliably follows the pattern above, with a long, extended, drawn out second note. Here, practice listening to this video (and listen for the distinctive wing-whistle when he takes off at the end):

Get acquainted:

That cooing is obviously the most striking thing about this particular dove – here is a well-named bird! (No, they’re not actually mourning, but the point is that I like names that offer some humanly memorable emotional resonance rather than mere dry taxonomic classification.) More broadly, doves have a long, cultural history as symbols of gentleness and peace, Christmas and weddings, domesticity and harmlessness and so on. Look at that picture above again. I think that’s the most affectionate-looking bird picture I’ve ever seen, taken right in San Rafael by a friend of mine. Such scenes are playing out every day, right outside your window. Keep an eye out for them and you will soon reconnect with millennia of human-dove understanding which many modern people are losing touch with. Less than 200 years ago, even a city-dweller would naturally turn to dove metaphors to express basic facets of human existence. Let’s revivify our old analogies with first-hand experience.

Écoutez-moi; je vais vous donner un conseil: adorez-vous. Je ne fais pas un tas de giries, je vais au but, soyez heureux. Il n’y a pas dans la création d’autres sages que les tourtereaux. Les philosophes disent: Modérez vos joies. Moi je dis: Lâchez-leur la bride, à vos joies.

Listen to me; I’m going to give you a piece of advice: adore each other. I’m not one to dance around my point, I go straight to what I mean to say: be happy. The only sages in creation are the turtle doves. The philosophers say: moderate your joys. I say: give them full rein.

– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Continue to Part II: The Rest of the Top 20 Backyard Birds

One Reply to “Backyard Birds I: Finches and Sparrows”

  1. LOVE the Victor Hugo quote; great article – thank you!

Leave a Reply