Song Sparrow Dossier

by Carl Strang

I established my vertebrate species dossiers in the 1980’s as an antidote to relying too heavily on the scientific literature and the stories of others for my natural history knowledge. I wrote everything I could remember about each species from personal experience, which generally was embarrassingly little. Then I began to add notes as I made new observations to beef out the files. Each subsequent entry begins with my date code: the day of the month, two-letter month code, and year. The song sparrow’s song is one of my favorites, evocative of my childhood in a small rural town. Hm…as I read this it is clear that I still can’t say I know all that much about this shy species.

The song sparrow is one of our common birds. The dark streaks and long rounded tail are among its physical features.

Sparrow, Song

Common in weedy to brushy old fields, railroad rights-of-way, etc., around Culver, Indiana, in south central Pennsylvania, and DuPage County, Illinois. Sings from a high perch in a bush, on a weed, or in the low branches of tree. Song consists of many short, musical chirping notes, accelerating somewhat toward the end. First song in 1980 in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, was on 19FE. A year-round resident at Culver, visiting feeders. Also in Pennsylvania. Song sparrows at McKee Marsh, Blackwell Forest Preserve (and one I heard at Waterfall Glen) have a “chew-beecha” phrase which they include in their song (note: this seems less true in recent years). That phrase has a squeaky, raspy quality, loud and interjected clashingly.

6FE87. Heard first song of year, Warrenville back yard.

22MR87. Fish hatchery, Culver. Fights frequent between song sparrows. Tumble together on the ground between short chasing flights. Vocalizations during fight a rapid-fire mix of toops, cheeps and bits of song.

11OC87. One still singing at Pratts Wayne Woods.

Song sparrow singing posture.

23MR88. A song sparrow sang from the end of an oak branch, halfway up a large tree, 15 feet off the ground, at edge of woods. Song: “chick turr, turr, turr-turr-turr, chick-tee-tiddle-tump” (last part variable). Switched to another song after a while: “cheedle, cheedle” was its beginning, but it stopped after a few of those. Throughout, alternated with a nearby male.

30JE90. Willowbrook. Some song sparrow calls have close similarity, even in tonal qualities, to some of chickadees’.

30SE99. Song sparrow at Willowbrook. Also seen 11&12OC.

27FE00. First song sparrow songs of the year heard near west branch of DuPage River at North Blackwell Forest Preserve.

4MR00. Morton Arboretum. A song sparrow displaced another and then sang, in brush beside a pond.

31MR00. Waterfall Glen. A song sparrow singing in tops of isolated 8′ shrubs beside railroad. Did not lift head to sing, but held head normally at 10-20 degrees above horizontal and maintained that angle while singing.

29AP00. Morton Arboretum. The call note is sharply bounded on each end, doesn’t trail off, is very high pitched.

Song sparrow nest on the ground in meadow area, Mayslake.

18JE00. Herrick Lake. A pair was very nervous about my presence, and though one had an insect in its beak they would not go to the nest though I was 20 yards away. A pair at Willowbrook earlier in the month behaved the same way.

22OC00. Song sparrows singing at Blackwell Heron Trail area. Some also were singing in Culver yesterday and the day before.

11MR01. Song sparrow singing at Timber Ridge Forest Preserve.

13OC01. Several at McKee Marsh.

22OC01. Several song sparrows singing, sometimes seeming to answer one another. Heron Trail, South Blackwell Forest Preserve.

3NO01. A single song sparrow song at Herrick Lake F.P., near big south marsh.

12OC02. At Fermilab, 2 kinds of calls from different individuals in different places. One had calls indistinguishable from the high one of white-throated sparrow. Bits of song, too. Another individual, perched in the open on top of a bush, exposed, had a call much like house sparrow’s.

Summer 2008. Song sparrows were among the species at Fullersburg raising cowbird young.

5OC10. Mayslake. Singing: white-crowned sparrow, phoebe, cardinal, song sparrow.

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