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A Bird in Hand

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The Song Sparrow

Some people have told me that they've taken an interest in birding, only to become discouraged by the many nondescript little birds that seem to defy identification; that every little bird seems to look the same.  What fun is that? Au contraire, that is the fun!  Being able to identify these little birds is not only an intellectual challenge, like solving a puzzle, it also enriches our understanding of the world around us.  To me, this effort makes the world seem so much more interesting and knowable. 

This brings us to the bird for this month's column: the Song Sparrow.  In many ways, this bird is as plain as they come.  Its plumage does not contain any remarkable blues, yellows, or reds to make it stand out in the crowd.  No, here we find the avian equivalent of practical wear: nice brown slacks, a crisp cotton shirt, and a gray cotton v-neck pullover.  Nice, but not particularly noticeable; definitely not memorable.  Just another face in the crowd.

But to know me, is to love me.  And song sparrows are worth the effort.  Though their plumage may not be head-turning, their song is.  This little creature is aptly named.  The male's song is one of the first you will hear in the spring, and he repeats it well into summer.  It is one of the few that will rival the Western Meadowlark in complexity and beauty.  What does it sound like?  Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to Western Birds describes it thus: “[A] variable series of notes, some musical, some buzzy; usually starts with 3-4 bright repetitious notes, sweet sweet sweet, etc.  Note, a low nasal tchep. The Sibley Guide to Birds goes even further, describing it as “seet seet seet to zeeeeeee tipo zeet zeet.”  Wow!  How would you like to have that job – “Hey, Bob, here's a recording of the Song Sparrow song.  Would you mind transcribing it for me?”  Ignore both of these – here's the best route to take.  Take a minute to listen to an audio file of the song. It's worth the effort, and then you'll be well on your way to adding the Song Sparrow to your life list. 

So what is the trick, besides song, in separating out the Song Sparrow from the myriad of other small, brown, birds flittering about our area?  This is easy.  Look for the “spot.”  Like many of its kin, the Song Sparrow is a small bird, with a long tail, and with a body that is predominantly brown in color.  This plainness is complimented by a less-than-pristine white breast that is covered in brown streaks.  Overall, the bird is an example of camouflage coloration that – for the males especially – seeks to not stand out.  The primary field mark for identifying this sturdy little fellow is noting how the convergence of those brown breast streaks form into a large, amorphous spot right in the center of the chest.  Sometimes this spot is large, sometimes it is small.  Sometimes it is sported like a huge, single button on the center of a pure white-background, other times it is almost hidden in a maze of streaks.  It varies individually from bird to bird, but it is always there. 

The Song Sparrow is noted for its song.  But this fact leads to the question: why do birds sing?  Love and war!   With some exceptions, the birds we hear singing in our area – the “songbirds” -- are exclusively male.  Their songs serve two functions.  First, the song is sung to attract a mate.  To the female of the same species the male's warble is a love song, “come to me my love. . .”  If she likes it, she will respond.  If not, she will fly on.  Evidently there is some aspect of the male's fitness expressed in the song.  Second, the song is sung to ward away other males.  This is my turf, stay away. . .”  That is why occasionally we will see two little songbirds wrestling in the dirt.  An intruder was attempting to wrest control of an area from the resident male.  This is a serious contest.  Winner takes all. 

 Knowing the Song Sparrow is a perfect example of why birding is so fun.  All of those little birds we see in our backyards or at our bird feeders are not the same.  Each has a story; each has its own reason for being.  The challenge is discovering who each is, as an individual specie, and how their distinctive attributes contribute to helping them find success in that wild, wild world they live in.  But I do sometimes wonder, do we all look the same to the birds?  Happy birding! 

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, birding, song sparrow, sparrow

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