For the Birds Radio Program: Song Sparrow
Laura talks about an endearing but shy little backyard bird, and the longterm study that taught us how they live.
One of the first reliable signs of spring is a common backyard bird that most people don’t even notice. It doesn’t flock to our feeders-it skulks in and out of the shrubs, picking up spilled seeds and little bugs. And even if you get a good look you won’t be satisfied, unless you appreciate the subtle beauty of a streaky brown sparrow. But the aptly-named song sparrow’s exuberant, joyful declaration of territory and love is one of the sounds that makes spring.
When I was in college in the 70s, my ornithology professor gave us a mnemonic for remembering the song sparrow’s song-“Peace, peace, peace, all my little children, peace.” Henry David Thoreau remembered it, “Maids! Maids! Maids! Hang up your teakettle-ettle-ettle.” Some musical people think of it as the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, though Beethoven himself never heard this strictly North American species.
If people can’t agree precisely what song sparrows are saying, neither can the sparrows. Over their huge range, from the Aleutian Islands down to Mexico, they have many different dialects. And it isn’t difficult to distinguish individual song sparrows by their songs. But even though there is so much variation, there are common elements that make identification of these songs straightforward. The tonal quality of their notes varies, yet song sparrows always begin with two or three identical notes-sometimes musical, sometimes buzzy or clicky–which then break into a jumble.
Less distinctive than its voice is the song sparrow’s plumage. These little birds are the quintessential “little brown jobs,” or what birders call “LBJ’s“-grayish brown or brownish gray, streaked above and below. I find two field marks to be the most helpful. Distinctive dark “malar stripes,” which I prefer to think of as jowl lines, give them a recognizable facial pattern. And the streaks on their breast seem to coalesce into a noticeable central blotch.
Two other sparrows that turn up in our backyards during migration share those distinct marks. The fox sparrow is larger and thicker bodied, like a song sparrow on steroids. The eastern fox sparrows we are most likely to see are foxy red, with somewhat plainer faces than song sparrows. The most distinctive thing about fox sparrows is the way they throw themselves into their work with both feet, scratching at the ground with gusto.
Lincoln’s sparrows are the size of song sparrows. The simplest way to recognize them is by their huffy breast color, with such delicate streaking it looks as if drawn with a fine point pen.
The song sparrow has the distinction of being one of the most-studied birds in the world, thanks to a brilliant stay-at-home mother named Margaret Morse Nice. She had five children, but clearly believed that a woman had more to contribute to the world than a tidy house. Over the decades when her children were growing, she trapped and banded 870 different song sparrows near her home, and closely followed and monitored 336 different individuals. She weighed and measured each one every time it entered a trap, amassing a wealth of data. On May 11, 1935, she followed a single marked bird throughout the entire day, from 4:42 a.m. until sunset. She recorded his every action, his every food morsel, and every one of the 2,305 songs he sang that day. In the course of her research, Nice never killed a single bird. Konrad Lorenz wrote that her study of the song sparrow was “the first long-term field investigation of the individual life of any free living wild animal.”
As soon as male Song Sparrows arrive in spring they commence singing. They live in every neighborhood of Duluth, including downtown, where males sing from shrubs or small trees, and so are not difficult to find. They may remain for many minutes on the same branch, breaking into song 4 to 6 times every minute, their whole bodies bubbling with the energy and enthusiasm of spring itself.