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Speaking of Nature

Song sparrows can be difficult to spot and identify

Sunday, April 21, 2013
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Speaking of Nature


Perched in a rose bush, this male song sparrow tilts his head back and lets his song fly. (photo: Bill Danielson)
Perched in a rose bush, this male song sparrow tilts his head back and lets his song fly. (photo: Bill Danielson)

Of all of the birds that I have ever seen skittering about in thickets, song sparrows are among the sneakiest.

They are designed for stealth, and they are very good at it. It is simply a byproduct of the way they live their lives, but it can be quite maddening for anyone who wants to get a really good look at them, particularly novice birders.

Among birders, this frustration has been so tremendous that it has even manifest itself into birding lexicon. The terms “Dickie Birds” or “Little Brown Jobs” (LBJs for short) are reserved for a group of small, nondescript birds that seem to defy identification wherever they can be found. Both terms are always used with a smile, however, because these birds are frustrating in a fun way.

If ever there was an LBJ, the song sparrow could easily be the prototype. A small bird, measuring 5-7 inches in length, the song sparrow’s markings are dominated by the color brown. Accurate identification of the song sparrow requires that you memorize the pattern of these brown markings and not confuse them with the markings of the other mostly brown birds.

The first, and best, field mark to look for is brown streaking on the breast. In particular, you should look for a heavy spot in the center of the upper breast feathers. Additionally, there are heavy markings that start at the corners of the beak and extend down the sides of the throat. These three brown patches only appear on song sparrows.

Other good field marks are the stripes on the song sparrow’s head: several broad chocolate-brown stripes separated by thin gray stripes. Any bird that has chocolate-brown and gray stripes on the head combined with three dark spots on the throat and upper breast can be nothing but a song sparrow. Males and females look alike.

If you want to find a song sparrow, you are going to have to find an area that is dominated by thickets of goldenrods, raspberry bushes, rose bushes and other low shrubs. Such habitat can be found in old fields or pastures, next to parking lots and along the shores of lakes, ponds, rivers and the ocean. Song sparrows simply will not enter areas dominated by trees, so don’t bother looking for them in the woods.

The name “song sparrow” obviously implies that this bird sings a lot. Its scientific name, Melospiza melodia, has the same message. When you combine the genus name (derived from the Greek words “melos,” meaning “a song,” and “spiza,” meaning “a finch”) and the species name (a Latin word meaning “a pleasant song”) you get a literal translation that is something like “the singing finch with the pleasant song.”

I cannot begin to describe the actual sounds for you because they are so varied and complex, but the song has often been described as sounding like the following phrase: aids-maids-put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettles. I may sound like a lunatic now, but if you locate a male song sparrow singing this wonderful little song, you will say, “Great Scott! He was right!”

As the days gradually get warmer and the idea of grabbing a pair of binoculars and going outside becomes more and more appealing, be sure to keep your ears open for the song sparrow’s song. In just a few weeks, there may be so many songs to listen to that picking out the song sparrow’s voice might be difficult. For the time being, however, they are among the only birds singing.

Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.

 
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