For the Birds Radio Program: Lincoln's Sparrow

Original Air Date: Feb. 13, 1989

Abraham Lincoln probably never saw a Lincoln’s Sparrow, which was named for another Lincoln from the same era. (3:35)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Lincoln’s Sparrow)

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

In 1933, when Thomas Lincoln was 21 years old, he accompanied John James Audubon to Labrador. Lincoln collected—that is, he shot—a little sparrow there. Audubon wrote about the occasion: “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 on with a brush; the streaks on Lincoln’s Sparrow are much finer, as if drawn with a fine point pen. The songs are different, too. The Song Sparrow has a short, simple tune which usually begins with three identical notes and then breaks into a jumble.

Recording of a Song Sparrow)

The song of Lincoln’s Sparrow is sweeter and more melodious.

(Recording of Lincoln’s Sparrow)

Lincoln’s Sparrows are shy and inobtrusive during their time in the Northland, although they have often come close to me when I made squeaks or psh psh psh sounds. They are rare summer residents in northern Wisconsin and northeastern Minnesota, much more often found during migration than during the breeding season. They can be seen at feeders in April and May, and then again in August through October, although they’re often overlooked.

They spend the winter in Mexico, Guatemala, and the extreme southern United States. In winter they seem to undergo a personality change. When Audubon later encountered the species in winter he described it as “petulant and pugnacious,” which would never apply to the bird in summer. Another 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 wintering in south Texas may get to observe Lincoln’s Sparrow more easily than we do, but we’re the luckier by far. For it’s only on their northland breeding grounds that Lincoln’s Sparrows sing their lovely song.

(Recording of a Lincoln’s Sparrow)

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