For the Birds Radio Program: The Great Le Conte's Sparrow Round-Up

Original Air Date: Sept. 26, 1988

Laura met a birder at the Lakewood Pumping Station who was familiar with one of her favorite experiences. (3:51) Date verified.

Duration: 3′57″


Birding Camaraderie

(Recording of a LeConte’s Sparrow)

Last weekend when I was counting up at the Lakewood Pumping Station, I met a birder who’s been visiting Duluth from Ohio. Since anyone wearing binoculars and lugging a spotting scope automatically belongs to the birding brotherhood, we immediately got into a lively conversation about–what else?–birds. He wore a hat that said “Whitefish Point Bird Observatory,” so I told him that that’s where I saw my first LeConte’s Sparrow. His face lit up and he asked me excitedly if that hadn’t been about ten years ago, with a group from Michigan Audubon Society. Yes, I told him–1976 to be exact. And did our group happen to form a semi- circle around the bird and walk toward it to drive it into a mist net to be banded? Yep–that was us. No, he hadn’t been there, but one of his friends was there and told him all about it. That little Michigan encounter happens to be one of my own favorite birding stories–not only because LeConte’s Sparrow, one of the smallest and prettiest of all North American sparrows, is one heck of an elusive bird, but because when the bander grasped the tiny thing, weighing about a third of an ounce, in his huge callused hand, the bird glared up at him, and at all of us, with consummate disgust and arrogant disdain, the way I imagine a World War II American hero would glare at a pack of Nazi captors.

And apparently I wasn’t the only one moved by the experience, since now, more than twelve years later, the story was coming back to me as the legend of “The Great LeConte’s Sparrow Round-Up.”

LeConte’s Sparrow is an exquisite little sparrow which long held the #1 position of all birds in my heart, until it was nudged out by nature’s perfect bird, the Blue Jay. LeConte’s face markings are a rich buffy color, almost a golden orange, set off by gray ear coverts. It breeds in pastures and bog openings in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and central Canada– it’s not hard to find in pastures along the South Shore of Lake Superior, but is very secretive. Most birds sing regularly at sunrise, but LeConte’s Sparrows are free spirits, singing any time they feel like it–from day-break through high noon to dusk, and often all night long. The only problem is, sometimes you can listen for hours in a field where you know darn well they’re nesting without hearing a single one. The song is a simple insect-like buzz.

(Recording of a LeConte’s Sparrow)

When the American Ornithologists’ Union met in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1979, I managed to finagle an introduction to one of the scientists who worked out the complicated systematics of LeConte’s and several other sparrow species. I was thrilled to meet the man who loved this little bird enough to dedicate so many years of Ph.D. research to understanding it. I studied his papers thoroughly before the meeting, so I could comprehend his every word. And then the moment came. The first thing he said to me was, “You actually like LeConte’s Sparrow? God, if I never see another one it’ll be too soon. The only way I like to see them anymore is in a museum drawer, stuffed.” I quickly told the ornithologist that I had to be someplace else, and hightailed it out of there in a hurry. As Walt Whitman once said, “You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds.” Just in case Whitman was right, I’ve never read another scientific paper about LeConte’s Sparrow , and it in turn has never lost its magic for me.

(Recording of a LeConte’s Sparrow)

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