This past winter two Rufous-crowned Sparrows took up residence near my home, and much to my enjoyment, they are still here. These sparrows were part of my article last week featuring our summer sparrows. I have owned my place near Fredericksburg for more than twenty years and these are the first two who have decided to stay for a while. I presume they are nesting somewhere close by, but as they are ground nesters, finding their nests takes perseverance and luck.
The sparrows hide their nests in clumps of grass or shrubs, or in a tangle of roots so well that they become almost undetectable. The top of their cup shaped nests of grass, fiber roots and leaf litter is level with the ground surface. When the female is incubating her eggs, her brown streaky plumage colors and patterns blend in with leaf litter and soil. She is well camouflaged. Also, she tends to stick tight to her nest and not give away her hiding spot.
These sparrows have gray heads with their signature rufous crown and eye stripe that extends back from the eye. They have clear breasts, rufous and gray streaked backs and dark rounded tails. Two other identification details include a white eye ring and black malor (mustache) stripe. Juveniles have streaked breasts until their first molt, as do many of the clear breasted sparrow species. The streaks likely help them blend in with their surroundings until they are old enough to fend for themselves.
If a perceived predator gets too close to the nest site, the female will feign an injured wing and frantically flutter on the ground to lead the intruder away from the nest. Killdeer parents are well known for similar tactics to protect their nest scrape in a bare gravel-strewn surface. Only a few birds use this tactic to protect their nest and young; likely many of these birds have ground nests or flimsy nests, such as those of doves. Nature seems to have protection plans for her more vulnerable species during the breeding season.
An interesting note about the young rufous crowns is that they remain with their parents for a month or more after fledging. The parents also remain on or near the breeding territory throughout the year. Rufous crowns appear to have a stronger family bond than do many other songbirds. For example, Eastern Bluebird fledglings also remain with the family and help their parents feed and care for the young of second and third nesting attempts. I do not know if the young sparrows help their parents care for later broods.
Rufous-crowned Sparrows are permanent residents in the north and west part of the state. They are listed as uncommon over their general range, but in the preferred habitat of rocky slopes and steep brushy and grassy slopes, they can be locally common. These sparrows are regularly found on all Kerrville area Christmas bird counts. They seem to like brush piles in grassy areas where they can hide and find food nearby.
Sparrows are mainly seed eaters who supplement their diets with insects and young shoots of grass and forb plants. I have observed my rufous crowns hanging out on the ground under my seed feeders. They do not feed directly from the feeders, but look for seeds wasted by the other seed eaters. My House Finches appear to dominate my summer black-oil sunflower feeders. I have had more seed consumption this spring than I can ever remember in the past, but I am glad to have my new boarders.
If you would like to find Rufous-crowned Sparrows, look for brush piles in sloping terrain where land has been cleared of ashe juniper (cedar) in Kerr and surrounding counties. If you find these brush piles, stop and observe if there is any bird activity. Rufous crowns do respond to “pishing” sounds by leaving their hiding spots to sit up on shrubs or the top of the brush piles. Look first for rufous crowns and longer darker tails. Confirm any potential sightings by checking for the eye ring and black moustache stripe. Plenty of patience is required to find them.