For the Birds Radio Program: Sparrows

Original Air Date: June 17, 2002

Laura takes delight in many sparrows, perhaps most in Le Conte’s Sparrow

Audio missing


When I started birding, I was fascinated with sparrows. Up until then, I had only been aware of the confiding little house sparrows that optimistically mooched for French-fries at McDonald’s. I loved them–at night they roosted in a juniper hedge outside our house, and it was lovely to fall asleep to the sound of them cheeping, telling each other about their day’s adventures. Of course I now recognize the serious ecological problems they cause to bluebirds and other species that are a natural part of the American landscape, but I still have a warm spot in my heart for the homey little sparrows who brought such warmth and to my childhood days and nights.

But in April, 1975, I discovered a new sparrow who sang an extraordinary, whistled song about poor old Sam Peabody. If the song wasn’t lovely enough, the first one I saw had striking black and white stripes on its head, and a bright yellow marking between the eye and the bill. Up until the moment that I saw my first White-throated Sparrow in Natural Bridge, Virginia, I’d never realized sparrows wore such dramatic plumage or sang such musical songs. Until I read about it in a field guide, I didn’t even realize that there are many species of sparrows native to America, completely unrelated to my beloved House Sparrows had were really invaders from Europe.

During that first year of birding I also saw my first tree, chipping, clay-colored, field, savannah, song, swamp, and white-crowned Sparrows. It was impossible to escape the fact that those little brown jobs were more varied, beautiful, and fascinating than I’d imagined possible.

The next spring, my husband Russ and I went on a Michigan Audubon field trip to Whitefish Point, where I discovered my first Le Conte’s Sparrow. This tiny creature acts like a mouse and sounds like an insect. Thomas Sadler Roberts writes of it 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 brokenĀ­ down, dead vegetation remarked that his first thought was of a twenty-dollar gold piece!

Roberts wrote that in 1932, the year before twenty-dollar gold pieces were discontinued and virtually all were destroyed by the US government after the FDR administration prohibited banks from paying out gold during the Depression. A single gold piece weighed 516 grains, or about three times the weight of a Le Conte’s Sparrow, but even with that added heft and all the gold, those coins had nothing of the inner glow or life force of a single Le Conte’s Sparrow.

After I found the bird at Whitefish Point our group drove it into a mist net for banding. The tiny sparrow looked up at the bander not with fear but defiance, making me think of a tiny Ahab defying the Great White Whale. I did the calculations. It would take 6,692 of the largest Le Conte’s Sparrows to balance a single 180-pound man, while it would. take only 833 men to balance the largest sperm whale on record I was so taken with that tiny bird’s bravery and sense of outrage, to say nothing of its beauty, that I yearned to see another.

The following year when I discovered them nesting in the pasture at my mother-in-law’s place in Port Wing, Wisconsin, I was thrilled. Most of the time l have to search hard there to see one, and virtually never hear them singing after sunrise, but the search and early hour are worth it. One morning at dawn I found one taking a shower bath in the dripping dew on the barbed wire fence around the Port Wing sewage ponds, and the sheer loveliness of that bird glowing in the early morning sunlight, the dew sparking like diamonds on gold, took my breath away.

Next month the last twenty dollar gold piece in existence is going to be auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York. It will probably fetch millions of dollars. It might be cool to own such a rare and valuable coin, but somehow for me a satisfying view of a Le Conte’s Sparrow is worth far more. And like love itself, seeing one of these beautiful creatures is absolutely free.