For the Birds Radio Program: Le Conte's Sparrow

Original Air Date: June 10, 1992

Laura talks about the Captain Ahab of the bird world. (4:07) Date verified.

Audio missing


Le Conte’s Sparrow, a diminutive member of the sparrow subfamily, is one of my all-time favorite birds. This tiny sparrow, with its even tinier, insect-like call, was named by John James Audubon for his good friend Dr. John Le Conte, who, appropriately enough, was more of an entomologist than an ornithologist.

This bug-sized bird, weighing only only a third to half an ounce, is remarkably lovely. In 1936, Thomas Sadler Roberts described it like this in his Birds of Minnesota:

It is one of the prettiest of the smaller Sparrows, being arrayed in a garb of subdued but beautifully disposed chestnut, gray, black and tawny color, having the general effect of a warm old-gold suffusion. One correspondent, enthused by his first sight of the bird sitting close at hand on a mat of broken-down, dead vegetation, remarked thiat his first thought was of a twenty-dollar gold piece!… It is … inclined to mount to the top of a little willow or tall weed and there, over and over again, deliver its amusingly squeaky little ditty.

Unfortunately, Le Conte’s Sparrow’s little song is so high-pitched that it escapes the hearing range of many people. Although it’s not an uncommon bird, summering in wet meadows all over the upper Midwest and central Canada, and wintering throughout the southeastern states from Georgia through Texas, it’s always high on the most-wanted lists of birders from all over.

You have to be patient to actually see a singing Le Conte’s Sparrow. It sings most of its inconspicuous little songs at dawn and sunset, with a few thrown out in the middle of the night for good measure, and while the male is singing, he usually sits very still, making him even harder to locate. Since a singing bird often stays on the same perch for many minutes at a time, you can study it at leisure once you finally figure out where the heck it is. Grassland sparrows like Le Conte’s make a spotting scope a worthwhile piece of equipment when birding through pastures and meadows.

Of course, after you have a Le Conte’s Sparrow on your list, it becomes easier and easier to find. Last autumn at dawn, I found one at the Port Wing Sewage Ponds. It was sitting on a barbed wire fence not ten feet away from me, reaching out and shaking dew from the leaves above it, for all the world as if it were taking a shower. Then it leisurely preened, a sparkling golden jewel in the rosy sunrise.

I developed an inordinate affection for Le Conte’s Sparrow the first time I ever saw one, on May first, 1976, when I was birding with a group from the Michigan Audubon Society at Whitefish Point in upper Michigan. I spotted the tiny migrant on the dunes, and rifled through my field guide to identify it, making it the 150th bird on my lifelist. Since it was an unusual migrant for Whitefish Point, the banders asked our group to circle it and walk it into a mist net. When the bander extricated the little bird from the net and held it up for us, I was struck by the attitude of defiance in the tiny mite. He didn’t seem the least bit frightened by the mass of people surrounding and staring at him, nor of the man holding him in his enormous hand. This little bird maintained his dignity in the face of the terrifying unknown, enduring the awful ordeal of being weighed, measured, and banded in unflinching silence, ever glaring at us, defiant as Ahab facing Moby Dick himself. And when it comes right down to it, as far as weight goes, a Le Conte’s Sparrow compared to a person is actually proportionally smaller than a person compared to the Great White Whale. I’ll never forget the expression in that tiny Ahab’s eyes. Le Conte’s Sparrow–it may be inconspicuous and secretive, but it’s a bird well worth knowing.