Bay Journal

Song sparrow’s true beauty is in the ear of the beholder

  • By Michael Burke on November 01, 2011
Song sparrows are a little more than 6 inches from beak to tail and weigh less than an ounce.  (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) Song sparrows are the most widespread sparrows in the United States.  (Lee Karney / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Summer was a fading memory, but the sun was still hot on the back of my neck. I inched down the bank, peering into the clear waters sliding by. Silvery minnows, tails quivering, faced upriver, holding virtually still in the gentle stream. A moment later the trance was broken as the fish broke ranks and darted off downstream.

I was standing along the banks of a little stream in Madison County, NY, near the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay. My companions had taken off on a 15-mile bike ride, leaving me to enjoy a solitary, late fall afternoon. And a glorious afternoon it was.

The intermittent breeze was just enough to corrugate the surface of the stream. A creeper's scarlet leaves and dense clusters of berries arched over the stream, clothing a leafless tree in spectacular fall color. The ox-blood sumac on the other side of the creek looked pale in comparison. A few pale wisps of clouds floated by. Turkey vultures drifted above, searching for the right thermals to carry them over fields and forests. Close at hand, sparrows flitted through the thicket.

I had turned my attention from the stream and was making a half-hearted effort to identify the birds dancing about in the brush. I could hear a noisy blue jay and the distant rattle of a passing freight train.

My nearby birds were mostly quiet, though. An occasional "chip" wasn't very helpful. The tangle of vegetation was doing a good job of obscuring the object of my modest interest.

Without ceremony, a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) popped into easy view. The bird gulped down one of the abundant berries, and then patiently waited while I got a better look.

Like the vast majority of their cousins, song sparrows are "little brown birds," or LBBs as they are called by dismissive birders. They are small, brown and white, and often hard to tell apart. Identifying marks include rather inconspicuous eye stripes and cheek colors, for example.

Song sparrows are our most widespread sparrows. They are common in backyards and parks, rural hedges and isolated marshes. They can be found in Alaska's Aleutian Islands and the chaparral of the Colorado Plateau. If you see a small, streaky brown bird, "song sparrow" is always a good guess.

They are a little more than 6 inches from beak to tail and weigh less than an ounce. The bird consists of various shades of brown, gray and rust on its head, back and wings. The breast is white with heavy brown streaks that converge around a central spot that is often poorly defined. A gray-white throat patch sits above that breast spot. To make matters more complicated, the song sparrow exhibits strong regional variations in its colors. The birds of the Pacific Northwest are quite dark and brown, while the one I was watching in central New York had more gray and softer browns.

Low, open or weedy habitat is ideal for these sparrows. In the summer, many head up to Canada for breeding season. Some of these short-distance migrants will fly into the Southeastern United States during winter. Most song sparrows, through, can be found year-round in a great band that stretches from the Carolinas up to Massachusetts and goes west all the way to California. That means you can see these birds during any month of the year in any of the Chesapeake watershed states.

As their name suggests, these sparrows are noted singers. In the spring, male birds will hop out to an easily seen branch and sing away, trying to attract a mate and claiming territory. The song, likes the bird's coloration, shows strong regional variability. It usually starts with a couple of clear, whistled notes, followed by a jumble of sweet trills and buzzing. Across North America, the combinations of song elements are dazzling. In the fall and winter, the exuberant singing fades. All you are likely to hear this time of year is a sharp, rising "chip" call when alarmed.

These are everyday birds. We hardly notice them. But they animate the landscape and punctuate our daily soundscapes. These creatures, largely anonymous and usually overlooked, are pervasive parts of our world. Like the diners in a restaurant or the passengers on a bus, we barely see them, even when they are close by.

As I stand here on this lovely afternoon, I realize that like most people, I am usually the anonymous one. We are the nondescript neighbors and passing faces of everyday life.

We lead quiet lives until some rare person decides to listen with abiding patience, waiting for us to finally step out from behind protective cover and softly announce our presence. And then anonymity gives way to the individuality that has been there all along.

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About Michael Burke

Mike Burke is an amateur naturalist who lives in Cheverly, MD.

Read more articles by Michael Burke

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