Song Sparrow -- by Kenneth Turner Blackshaw
The wind is howling. The windows are rattling. Snow is clinging to everything out there. And … a Song Sparrow is extracting seeds from the arborvitae next to my window. It's reassuring to see such a sprightly sign of life amidst winter's savagery.
Earlier I had been out clearing the ground below my feeders so the ground birds could feed. The snow was swirling down and the wind was moaning in the trees overhead. Still, I could hear the tinkling notes of Song Sparrows in song and could feel that spring was only a month away.
Song Sparrows are another of the 'LBJ's -- 'Little Brown Jobs' -- that make birder's lives more worthwhile. For me, it was one of the first birds I could recognize, even before I could appreciate them as individuals. As an early student of Edith Andrews, back in the mid-fifties, I quickly learned to spot these little guys as they would fly across in front of the car. The way they pumped their tails behind them seemed distinctive. Edith would always respond with 'Good spotting!' -- just the kind of reinforcement a young teenager needs.
Song Sparrows are native sparrows that have adapted themselves well to man's habitat here on the island. They are year-round residents here on Nantucket although our winter residents are not the same birds that are here in the summer. Our summer birds are probably down in the Carolinas now.
This is a species that can be found all across the U.S. and Canada -- even Alaska. There are 31 recognized subspecies. These are geographical variations, which can be distinguished, but all the same species nonetheless. Song Sparrows are generally streaked brown on the back, with a white throat and breast, streaked with black. The black streaks come together into a thick black spot in the front of the breast, like a stickpin. Their brown tail is rounded at the end, rather than forked.
But mostly you hear the song. There are various mnemonics which describe it. You mainly hear a cheery jumble of notes with the rhythm - "Hip-hip-hooray boys. Spring is here!" Or perhaps -- "Peace, peace, peace, all my little children -- Peace!" These little phrases can help you recognize a call. I still remember "If you see it. You will seize it, and you'll squeeze it 'til it squirts!" That mnemonic for the Warbling Vireo stuck with me although I didn't actually hear one until fifteen years later. When I heard that liquid warble, I knew this rather nondescript bird immediately.
The Song Sparrow's Latin name also refers to the song, Melospiza melodia, a pleasant-singing song finch. The song is often the only way you are aware of this rather invisible bird. They have been in song since mid-January and the sound -- at five or six times per minute, is difficult to miss.
Once the territorial males arrive at the end of March, they put on a great display, even singing somewhat awkwardly in flight, neck stretched out, head and tail held high, and wings vibrating rapidly. They tend to keep the same mates, year after year, although their short life span complicates things. The oldest age for a Song Sparrow from banding records is nine years, but many only last a year or two. This is also a species that may raise two or three clutches of eggs each year, stretching both ends of the calendar in order to do this. Most nests are either on the ground or within a few feet of it.
One of the most interesting things about this species is that much of our detailed knowledge comes from the work of an early citizen scientist, Mrs. Margaret Morse Nice, who stunned the ornithological world with the depth and thoroughness of her observations, published in the late 1930's. She personally trapped and banded 870 individual sparrows and was also able to track 336 individuals through color bands, a method still used today to track specific birds. Doing this allows you to know exactly which birds are doing what, without having to subject them to the stress of retrapping.
Her work filled in a gap in research, since no one had bothered to study this rather mundane-appearing little bird before. Nowadays, almost anything written about this species, ends up citing her research. This is just another reason to be observant of natural things around you and keep good records. You could be collecting data that is not found elsewhere.
So, when you hear the "Hip-Hip Hooray Boys…" think back to Mrs. Nice, back in 1935, when she tracked an individual Song Sparrow from 4:42 a.m. until sundown, noting that he "Hip-Hip"ed over 2,300 times in that day. Nantucket is fortunate to have an inspiring songster like this to serenade us most of the year.
George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.
If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.
To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.