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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

A sparrow with a song

The song sparrow is a common resident along area shorelines

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 7/1/20

It’s a stressful time of year for bird parents around the North Country. In most cases, their young of the year have spilled out of the nest by now, and that means an almost never-ending task …

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A sparrow with a song

The song sparrow is a common resident along area shorelines

Posted

It’s a stressful time of year for bird parents around the North Country. In most cases, their young of the year have spilled out of the nest by now, and that means an almost never-ending task of tracking youngsters just learning to fly and trying to keep them safe from the many predators— from domestic cats to birds of prey— that would love to make an easy meal out of their offspring.
And then there are those big, clumsy humans, like me, who happen to show up in the vicinity, unannounced.
Such was the case this past weekend as I worked my way along a swamp edge near the house. A sudden commotion, which turned out to be a pair of song sparrows, caught my attention. The two parents were clearly disturbed by my presence, but rather than shrinking away quietly as you might expect, they were doing everything they could to attract my attention.
I knew young ones were likely down in the heavy cover along the edge of the swamp, and that was confirmed when one of the adults flew right at me, then dropped on the ground and dramatically feigned injury, dragging a wing. I hadn’t seen song sparrows do that before, but it wasn’t a surprise. It’s a common practice used by a lot of birds to try to draw danger away from their nest, or an unruly bunch of fledged young.
I used their considerable interest in my presence to snap a few of these photos before vacating the area to leave the couple and their young ones in peace. They had found a good place to raise song sparrow young. In my experience, song sparrows, at least in our region, are almost always found near water, and here they were surrounded by it on three sides on a rocky knob that juts, peninsula-like, into a beaver pond located just upstream of the Lost Lake Swamp.
While song sparrows gravitate toward water here in the North Country, they’ve adapted to a wide range of habitats elsewhere across their very extensive range, which extends from Florida and parts of Mexico to Alaska. In fact, song sparrows are among the most diversified of any bird species in North America. Ornithologists have identified 24 subspecies of song sparrow and at least 52 regional differences found within this single species. They have adapted to almost every conceivable habitat, from Arctic grasslands to tropical rain forests. Just as humans have regional dialects, so do song sparrows, which can make it almost pointless to try to describe the jumbling collection of chips, trills, and buzzy phrases that comprise the song sparrow’s song. To most human ears, it has a reputation as a pleasing singer, hence its name.
Song sparrows also look different depending on where they’re from. Here, in the north, our song sparrows tend to be dark brown, while in desert regions they can be much paler, often with reddish overtones, In other regions, they are much grayer in appearance. In all cases, however, the song sparrow can be distinguished from most other sparrows by the heavy streaking on the head and breast, which culminates in a central dark patch in the middle of the chest.
The other common sparrows in our area this time of year, the white-throated and chipping, both have clear breasts, without any noticeable streaking, at least in adult birds.
Song sparrows are mostly monogamous, although about 20 percent of them will pair up with more than one mate during the course of a breeding season. It just goes to show, once again, that there’s plenty of variety — call in natural variation— among song sparrows. Which is what always makes the natural world an interesting place!

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