For the Birds Radio Program: Le Conte's Sparrow

Original Air Date: June 27, 1988

The American Birding Association is meeting in Duluth this week, so Laura talks about some of the birds birders come to Duluth in hopes of finding. (4:01) Date verfied.

Audio missing


(Recording of a LeConte’s Sparrow)

This week the American Birding Association is meeting in Duluth. Unfortunately for me, I’m not with them–by an ironic coincidence, this is the one week of the year when I actually have a paying job, teaching an Elderhostel up in Ely. But to mark the birding convention, this week’s programs will highlight some of the Northland’s specialties–birds that most people have never heard of, but which are actively sought by birders.

One of the least noticed of all the Northland’s birds is LeConte’s Sparrow. This tiny bird, found in the same pastures and weedy fields as Bobolinks, Savannah Sparrows and Sedge Wrens, makes an insect-like buzz, shorter and higher-pitched than a Savannah Sparrow’s. In a fitting tribute, John James Audubon named it for his good friend, Captain John LecConte, who was not only a noted physician, but also a fine entomologist, professionally suited to appreciate such an insect-like bird. The song is so high-pitched and quiet that it normally can’t be heard more than 150 feet away. Many people can’t hear it at all.

(Recording of a Le Conte’s Sparrow)

Not only is the song frustratingly hard for many people to hear—Le Conte’s Sparrows are also uniquely unpredictable in their singing habits. I’ve heard them singing throughout the day and night in June and July, but some authorities write that they sing only at dawn and dusk, and others that they sing only at dusk and night. Hearing the song may or may not help in actually locating the bird—unlike most birds, which sing from a conspicuous perch, Le Conte’s Sparrows often sing while hidden in grasses. If you approach, they don’t usually flush—they run on the ground like mice. But when you walk toward them, they often do pop up on a perch somewhere near, as if to get a better look at the intruder. The trick is watching for them to emerge. You’re most likely to find them with the help of a dog, which explains why they’re sometimes called “stink birds.”

Le Conte’s Sparrow has a subtle beauty unmatched by any other sparrow. It’s only 4 1/2 or 5 inches long, with pretty orange face markings, gray ear coverts, and pinkish streaks on the nape of the neck. It may take a lot of work to actually find one, but that’s part of its charm.

The scientific name and classification of Le Conte’s Sparrow has changed many times since the bird was first discovered in Georgia in 1790, as ornithologists debated which internal structures and outward features were the most important in determining sparrow relationships. Currently, Le Conte’s Sparrow belongs to the same genus as the Sharp-tailed, Henslow’s, Grasshopper, Seaside, and Baird’s Sparrows. It’s often found in the same marshes as the closely related Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Curiously, Le Conte’s Sparrow is strongly territorial, but the Sharp-tailed Sparrow doesn’t defend any territory at all.

The first time I ever saw a Le Conte’s Sparrow was on Whitefish Point in Michigan one spring morning when I was a neophyte birder. A group of us walked it into a mist net for banding. The bander held the bird, which weighed only about a third of an ounce, in his huge fist, capable of crushing the fragile creature in a moment. I thought that it would be scared out of its wits locked in that grip and surrounded by 20 gawking humans, but it glared at us all with a fierce defiance and sense of dignity I never expected in such a tiny mite as it piped out little avian obscenities at the universe.

(Recording of a Le Conte’s Sparrow)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”