For the Birds Radio Program: Lincoln's Sparrow

Original Air Date: Feb. 11, 1987

Lincoln’s Sparrow was not named for Abraham Lincoln.

Duration: 3′34″


Lincoln’s Birthday

(Recording of a Lincoln’s Sparrow)

Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is tomorrow. It’s a state holiday in Illinois, where I come from, and I’ve always admired our sixteenth president greatly, but I don’t know of a single story about him and a bird. So I guess I’ll have to tell you about another Lincoln, Thomas, from Maine, who lived at about the same time as the Great Emancipator.

When Thomas Lincoln was 21 years old, in 1833, he accompanied John James Audubon to Labrador. Lincoln collected a little sparrow, which Audubon described as a “petulant and pugnacious” species; Audubon officially named the bird Lincoln’s Sparrow in his friend’s honor. As Audubon wrote, “Chance placed my young companion, Thomas Lincoln, in a situation where he saw it alight within shot, and with his usual unerring aim, he cut short its career. On seizing it, I found it to be a species which I had not previously seen; and, supposing it to be new, I named it “Tom’s Finch,” in honor of our friend Lincoln, who was a great favorite among us. Three cheers were given him, when, proud of the prize, I returned to the vessel to draw it.”

Lincoln’s Sparrow is a lovely little bird, closely related to the Song Sparrow. Both have streaked breasts, but the Song Sparrow’s streaks look like they were painted by a kid with a brush–the streaks on Lincoln’s Sparrow are much finer–as if drawn with a fine point pen. The song of Lincoln’s Sparrow is much prettier than that of the Song Sparrow. In spite of its name, the Song Sparrow’s song is not much to hear–Kim Eckert claims it’s one of the ugliest in the bird world.

(Recording of a Song Sparrow)

Although some people actually like the Song Sparrow’s song, few would claim that it’s nicer than a Lincoln’s Sparrow:

(Recording of Lincoln’s Sparrow)

Lincoln’s Sparrows are shy and unobtrusive during their time in the Northland, although I’ve often found that they respond to squeaks and pishing sounds. They’re rare summer residents in northeastern Minnesota and in northern Wisconsin–more often found on migration than during the breeding season. They show up at feeders in April and May, and then again in August through October, though they’re often overlooked. They spend the winter in Mexico, Guatemala, and the extreme southern United States. During winter, they seem to undergo a personality change–and lose all their shyness. One ornithologist who studied them in Mexico wrote: “We found Lincoln’s Sparrows familiar door-yard birds that were easily studied at close range as they fed on the lawns and about the buildings. Two individuals that frequented a much-used path leading from the house seldom moved more than a few feet out of the way when people walked by. They were as fearless as House Sparrows of city parks. The contrast between this behavior and that of the species during migration, and particularly on its breeding grounds, was striking.”

People in the south may get to observe Lincoln’s Sparrows more easily than we do, but in my estimation we’re luckier, by far. For it’s only on their Northland breeding grounds that Lincoln’s Sparrows sing.

(Recording of a Lincoln’s Sparrow)

This is Laura Erickson, and this unseasonable little taste of spring has been “For the Birds.”