Creature Feature

The Abundant and Musical Song Sparrow 

By Wayne Bierbaum 

A few years ago, I went to a wedding that was held in Key West (congratulations again, Lindsey and Leo). On an off morning, I went for a walk on Little Torch Key. I was hoping to find some tropical animals or at least some unusual birds.  

After walking a quarter mile into the park, I heard a bird singing in the underbrush that sounded new and unique. Thinking that I had found a rare tropical species, I started trying to see it and get a photo. As I would slowly move to where I heard it, it would pop about eight feet into the air, spread its tail feathers and dive back into the underbrush about 20 yards away. I probably followed the little bird for 30 minutes and the mosquitoes really started following me. Finally, the bird landed where I could easily see it and I was able to watch it sing. I was disappointed that the little bird that I suffered to see was a common song sparrow. That was the day I found out that even the birds have different dialects in different parts of the country. 

Song sparrows are probably the most common sparrow in North America. Cornell University lists 24 species of the bird. The farther north the species are found, the darker the coloration, with Alaska having the darkest tones of brown. 

In our area, they are a uniform medium brown with a pale chest with a few brown streaks and an almost square brown patch at the base of the neck. Their cheeks have light and dark streaks. Their bill is uniformly brown. They are fairly small and generally stay close to the ground.  

They typically nest in dense bushes and have three or four offspring and will have two broods. In the summer they eat a lot of insects with some seeds. In the winter, they forage for seeds and fruit.  

As their name implies, they love to sing and they have several songs. Singing establishes territory and attract females. They will sing throughout the year. When they pop up out of brush, like the one in the Keys did, they give a little “eep.”  

It can be hard to identify all the various species of sparrows. The field sparrow has a pale bill and pale cheeks. Lincoln sparrows have gray cheeks. American tree sparrows have a two-tone bill. Savannah sparrows have yellow coloration above their eyes. White-throated sparrows have a bright white throat patch. Swamp sparrows have reddish brown wings and a reddish crest on their head. Chipping sparrows are the smallest and have a red crest and otherwise are streaked pale tan in color. Fox sparrows are much larger and are red-streaked. The white-crowned sparrow has a line of short white bars on its wings and adults have a white crest. 

Song sparrows will come to bird feeders and frequently are found feeding underneath them. They are not endangered but are projected to be severely impacted by climate change and may someday become uncommon in the Chesapeake region.