Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

One of the songs of summer

The song sparrow is common along North Country lakeshores and marshes

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 6/8/18

The chips and buzzy trills of the song sparrow can seem so ubiquitous in parts of our area that it can be easy to overlook. I say parts of our area, because song sparrows in our region are tied …

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One of the songs of summer

The song sparrow is common along North Country lakeshores and marshes

Posted

The chips and buzzy trills of the song sparrow can seem so ubiquitous in parts of our area that it can be easy to overlook. I say parts of our area, because song sparrows in our region are tied closely to water edges and are common along lakeshore, or the banks of streams or wetlands.

It’s a common trait of one of the most widespread and adaptable bird species in North America. You can find song sparrows from the tip of the Aleutians to the Florida Keys, from Hudson Bay to the Rio Grande. Throughout that vast range, song sparrows have adapted to a wide range of habitats, but their connection to water remains more or less a constant. From salt marshes to desert oases, from wilderness lakes in Canada, to Midwestern suburbs, the distinctive notes of the song sparrow can be heard.

Like many sparrows, the song sparrow is a bit of a skulker, and can usually be found in shoreline thickets and high grass in our region. That means you’re more likely to hear your backyard song sparrow than see it. The female typically remains well hidden, with only the male occasionally moving to a more exposed perch to declare his ownership of his breeding territory.

While we tend to think of sparrows as pretty nondescript, the song sparrow does have a few distinctive marks that can help you confidently confirm the identification of this species. The head and chest are heavily streaked, brown and white, with the streaks coming together in the front to form a distinctive, though sometimes ill-defined, chest spot. The only other sparrow found in our area (and only during migration) with a chest spot is the American tree sparrow, and that spot is found on an otherwise un-streaked breast. And this time of year, tree sparrows are on their own breeding territory in northern Canada, so you won’t find them here until they’re headed back south sometime in late September or early October.

Perhaps because its range is so vast, song sparrows exhibit many local variations and many of those regional populations are distinct enough to qualify as sub-species. In fact, ornithologists have named at least 52 different sub-species of the song sparrow, including some that are confined solely to remote islands. These distinct populations can appear very different, with some desert sub-species exhibiting very pale plumage, while some Pacific Coast sub-species appear as dark as chocolate.

Song sparrows in our region are part of the eastern sub-species, which has the broadest range of any of the sub-species. Yet even within a sub-species, there is considerable variation, particularly with song. Just as humans have regional dialects, so it is with song sparrows, whose songs can be very different. While song sparrows on the East Coast may be the same sub-species as our birds here in the North Country, they sound very different. Minnesota accents, it turns out, apply to more than just people!

These variations in song help to demonstrate what ornithologists have known for some time— birds actually learn their songs from hearing other nearby birds. While they have some innate sense of how to communicate, a bird that’s isolated from its kind will sound nothing like birds in the wild. Male song sparrows may have 20 different song types, with as many as 1,000 improvised variations.

In our area, the basic song of this sparrow is a series of phrases, starting with a few repeated notes, followed by a series of trills. It’s not particularly melodious, but it is enthusiastic. And for many, it’s one of the sounds of summers at the lake. Which means it’s a welcome song, indeed.

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