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Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: The field sparrow

Last week, I wrote a column about a wonderful little bird called a chipping sparrow. The smallest of our local sparrows, this tiny bird is virtually ubiquitous throughout the suburban landscape. With a little attention to your surroundings, and little “learning” and a little practice, anyone will be able to pick up on a chipping sparrow if it is present.

This cannot be said of every member of the sparrow family, however. There are some species that are as elusive, invisible and barely detectable to anyone but a person who has been trained in the art of “bird listening.” Anyone can watch birds and almost anyone can learn to identify the birds they see by sight, but the real skill lies in finding birds that you cannot initially see. That requires a great deal of listening.

Take, for example, the delightful day that was last Friday. It started much like any other work day has for the past months, but I soon realized the extent to which the landscape has changed when I went outside to fill my bird feeders. The Dawn Chorus (the explosion of birdsong that occurs at first light) was incredible and I heard all sorts of wonderful voices in the fugue, including a turkey gobbling to the west.

So, I stepped inside my kitchen to the table by the window where I keep my daily field journal and I started writing down everything I had heard. As I looked up and gazed out the window, I happened to catch sight of peculiar shape of a peculiar bird flying across the ever-brightening eastern horizon. About the size of a crow, it was definitely not a crow, so I grabbed my binoculars and confirmed that it was a green heron. That, combined with the extraordinary dawn chorus, suggested the Friday was going to be a rare day indeed.

It was painful to get in my car and drive to work, but it was easy to get in my car at the end of the day and race home. Evenings can be good on my porch and I was determined to spend every possible moment outside. I quickly changed, grabbed my journal and set up shop on the deck table. Then, as I often do, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and listened.

Slowly, the number of birds that I heard started to grow: 10, 15, 20, even 25, but new voices kept bleeding through the avian din. When I hit 30 species, I was pretty happy. Among the highlights were great-crested flycatchers (which had just arrived in my yard), a yellow-billed cuckoo (which I hear very infrequently every year) and a field sparrow that was singing across the street.

Field sparrows are not that unusual for me to hear, but they are such shy birds that I can count the times I have actually laid eyes on them on one hand. So, I added the field sparrow to the list (I think it was species number 32 for the day) and continued listening. That’s when something truly unexpected happened.

I happened to catch a movement out of the corner of my eye. In a tall lilac bush that is just starting to push its branches above the level of the porch railing there was a small bird that I initially thought was one of my chipping sparrows. They love this particular bush and are in it all the time. But when the bird shifted its position up toward the top of the bush, I got the feeling there was something “wrong” with this chipping sparrow.

The colors on the back were correct enough, but when I got a glimpse of the bird’s face, I knew that it wasn’t a chipping sparrow at all. Instead, it was none other than a field sparrow … and my camera was on the kitchen table. Swallowing a curse, I took some small measure of solace from the fact that the bird was too close for my big lens to focus on, but that did not totally alleviate my pain.

So, for the first time in my birding career, I was less than 10 feet away from a bird that I had been listening to for years. The icing on the cake was the fact that the bird was not in direct sunlight, which allowed the rich red tone of its feathers to glow to their fullest effect. I was also astounded by how small it was. For some reason I thought field sparrows were the size of white-throated sparrows, sort of the way you imagine the face of a radio personality. When you are actually confronted with reality it can be a bit of a shock.

Field sparrows are aptly named because of their affinity for old fields. Imagine a cow pasture that has been abandoned and allowed to start to grow over and you have the perfect image of field sparrow habitat. They like tall grasses with shrubs and small trees starting to get established. They share their love of this sort of habitat with indigo buntings.

Field sparrows spend most of their lives right here in the United States, only occasionally drifting south of the Mexican border. Eastern birds migrate down to Florida, but never out into the Caribbean. In the spring, the oldest males return to the breeding grounds first, followed by the younger males and then the females.

Upon their arrival, the oldest males will attempt to claim the best territories aided by their songs. Among the birds singing outside right now, they may be some of the quietest, but if you hear one by itself it is unmistakably distinctive. Imagine the rhythm made by a ping-pong ball being dropped about a foot off a table. Then, substitute a whistle for the tapping and you’ve got the song.

Males sing loudly when unpaired, but as soon as they find a mate they tend to cut way back on their singing. A small cup nest will be built of grasses on or near the ground and into the nest the female will lay two to six eggs marked with brown blotches. The female incubates the eggs for 10 to 14 days and then the pair will help to feed their growing brood.

Although the adults will eat seeds (more on that in a second), the chicks are fed a diet of insects and spiders. This is all pretty standard stuff when it comes to the small Neotropical migrants. When the chicks are old enough to fledge, they will quickly learn to take care of themselves and will form up in little flocks of juveniles that roam across the landscape. Male field sparrows, which are quite territorial, are surprisingly tolerant of these little bands of baby birds.

When the field sparrow flew from the lilac bush, I thought that was the end of it, but I went into the kitchen and grabbed my camera and a handful of mixed birdseed (field sparrows love millet). I restored myself in my seat and waited with only a filament of hope keeping the dream alive, but then I was rewarded. The field sparrow came back and I was ready.

This is an incredibly beautiful and brief time of year and it can easily be missed if the bad habits established in winter aren’t corrected. Fight the urge to watch TV when you get home. Go outside and enjoy the bug-free evenings while they last. Had I not done this I would have missed out on a wonderful view of a bird that I have admired from afar lo these many years.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit
www.speakingofnature.com

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