For the Birds Radio Program: National Sparrow Awareness Week: American Tree Sparrow

Original Air Date: May 2, 1989

Today Laura Erickson talks about the sweetest sparrow of all.

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(Recording of a American Tree Sparrow)

When the icy tinkling notes of the Tree Sparrow are supplanted by their sweet song, and the great waves of them have gone north, we know that spring is really here. This lovely sparrow congregates with juncoes on roadsides. It also visits feeding stations, but seldom deigns to alight on a feeder, this bird of the earth. It is the most poorly named of all sparrows, since it spends probably less time in trees than any other. It was named by nostalgic early settlers who saw in it a superficial resemblance to the European tree sparrow. Our American species, which isn’t even in the same family as the European variety, nests on the ground, under a tussock among the dwarf willows and shrubs of the tundra. It may sing from a low perch, but sometimes it even keeps its feet on the ground as its ethereal song floats skyward.

(Recording of a American Tree Sparrow)

Tree Sparrows are closely related to Chipping Sparrows, and both have a rusty cap, but it’s easy to tell them apart with practice. Tree Sparrows are bigger, weighing in at 2/3 of an ounce compared to a Chippy’s 1/2 ounce. Tree Sparrows are also browner, with a rusty eye line on a gray face—Chippies are daintier, with a black eye line contrasting boldly with a white eyebrow. Chippies have a clear silver-gray breast, where Tree Sparrows have a softer gray, with muted rusty smudges on the sides of their neck which often form a soft necklace. Tree Sparrows also have a diagnostic black dot in the center of the breast called a tie tack. The two species are seldom found in the Northland together—the Tree Sparrows have usually left for the Arctic circle by the time the Chippies arrive in mid-May.

Tree Sparrows are true Arctic birds, birds with simple needs and simple pleasures. They are unusually egalitarian in their sexual roles, with the male and female equally likely to be the pursuer or the pursued. Although the male is the one that sings the main song, females have an alluring song of their own. They build their nests of grasses, plant stems, bark, and mosses, and line it with ptarmigan feathers and lemming fur. The adults eat weed seeds fallen to the ground, but the nestlings are fed mostly insects—they need protein to attain adult size in 9 1/2 days. Summer days in the Arctic are longer than days down here, but the season itself is much shorter, and these tiny but rugged creatures are perfectly adapted to the harsh natural reality of the far North. Although they travel two or three thousand miles twice a year, endure winter temperatures down to 28 degrees below zero, and follow ice storms north in spring, they live for a surprisingly long time—there are several records of them living for longer than 7 years, and at least one was still alive at nine years when last seen.

Spring in the Northland seems slow and cold at times, but the simple sweetness of American Tree Sparrows is one of the ephemeral joys that disappears before the warmth of summer is upon us. They are a lesson to us to enjoy each day for what it brings, rather than complaining about the cold and sitting around waiting for summer.

(Recording of a American Tree Sparrow)

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