House Sparrow Dossier

by Carl Strang

What could be more common than a house sparrow? That question seems less appropriate now than it might have a couple decades ago, given the decline in the species’ numbers in recent years in many parts of its range. Nevertheless, if the length of a species dossier was in proportion to the species’ abundance, this should be one of the longer ones. That it is not is a clue that perhaps I have been neglecting to give this bird the attention it deserves. Even the introductory paragraph that I wrote to kick off the dossier in the 1980’s is perfunctory.

Sparrow, House

Male house sparrow, profile view

Male house sparrow, profile view

Never far from buildings, these birds usually nest in cavities of buildings, light posts, or birdhouses, though sometimes they build large ball-shaped nests in tree or shrub branches. They use much grass and assorted debris and litter in nest construction. The song is an uncomplicated, cheerful chirping sound. Loud “cheep” calls used in agonistic and warning situations. The male has a stiff bowing hopping behavior, with tail and wings elevated, in courtship. They eat seeds and insects. They engaged in vigorous pursuit of emerging termite alates at the East Street house in Carlisle, PA.

Early AU86. Corpus Christi, TX. Young begging by fluttering wings and stretching head toward adult male. He flew to another bush and searched for food grosbeak fashion, little change in perch with much peering at nearby branches in all directions.

The face reveals how the black chin accentuates the bill, possibly a useful feature when facing off with antagonists.

The face reveals how the black chin accentuates the bill, possibly a useful feature when facing off with antagonists.

13MY87. Bird foraging in willow tops at Willowbrook. Sits on perch 1-3 seconds, searching nearby vegetation, occasionally reach-probing, changing perches about 8″-2′ apart.

8AP90. Female house sparrow systematically biting off bits of dandelion (leaves) to eat, masticating and swallowing.

17OC92. Vicinity of Cantigny (Winfield, IL) while driving. Kestrel carrying house sparrow low across road. Heavy load for the kestrel. Lost grip, perhaps because of the distraction of my car’s close proximity. Sparrow flew away. Many times I’ve seen kestrels searching vole habitat, carrying or eating mice. This, I believe, is the first bird capture I’ve witnessed.

1JE99. House sparrow picking up insect remains from old coyote feces on trail.

25AU99. House sparrow with several white feathers on tail and wings observed at Willowbrook.

29JA00. House sparrows along with Brewer’s blackbirds, horned larks and juncos feeding on spillage from buffalo feeders at Fermilab.


Dark-eyed Junco Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

We’ll soon say goodbye, for the summer, to our most familiar snowbirds, the dark-eyed juncos. Here are my notes on the species. This probably will also be the last dossier until next winter.

Junco, Dark-eyed

Dark-eyed junco

Dark-eyed junco

1986 initial summary: Juncos are common late fall, winter and early spring residents around Culver and West Lafayette, Indiana, south central Pennsylvania, and DuPage County, Illinois. They usually travel in flocks, and can be seen in any habitat. They have a follow-me signal in the form of white outer tail feathers that contrast with the dark central ones. They eat seeds, and feed almost exclusively on the ground or on elevated flat platforms in winter. The call note is 1 to 3 syllables (often 3): chi’-bi-dit’ (short I’s), very quick and chittering.

4OC86. First lone individual of fall, stayed around the Warrenville, Illinois, back yard for much of the day.

1987. Juncos still were present at Willowbrook on 6AP, and were singing by 16MR (trilling song), gone by 27AP.

24SE87. First juncos of fall have arrived, Morton Arboretum.

14MR88. Juncos maintain a constant chatter, foraging on and near ground, of minute twitters, trills, and complex combinations of soft notes, occasionally interacting more directly with little scuffles when one encroaches on another’s bit of feeding ground.

17MR88. Juncos singing a lot, Willowbrook Back 40.

20MR88. In east Meacham Grove, a large junco flock, as at Willowbrook very noisy with assorted twitterings, chasing, some singing. Birds were on the ground, in bushes and in trees.

21MR88. Willowbrook Back 40. Some juncos kick like fox sparrows, but not so loudly.

Spring 88. Flocks still present 30MR, gone by 5AP, a few individuals still present 8AP.

15OC88. First juncos of fall, at Red Oak Nature Center (near Batavia, IL).

Juncos most commonly are seen on the ground.

Juncos most commonly are seen on the ground.

18NO88. Willowbrook Back 40. I was watching a flock of juncos and listening to birdlife in general when a sharp-shin flew over, north to south. There was silence from the time it came into view to the time it passed from view. The juncos remained absolutely still, their twitterings and flutterings resuming after the hawk was gone. That hawk must have a quiet view of the world, just as police see orderly traffic when in their patrol cars.

9MR89. Juncos starting to sing, Willowbrook.

21MR89. Willowbrook Back 40. Considerable social activity on this clear but very cool day, among juncos. Some vigorous chasing, and in one case two birds feeding on ground close together, in what seemed to be a synchronized way. They appeared to be male and female. Warming up for start of breeding season? (Have been singing off and on for weeks, now).

21OC89. First junco of fall seen at West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve.

24SE91. First junco of fall seen at Willowbrook.

19FE99. Juncos starting to insert bits of song into their calls.

11MR99. Junco song a trill, sometimes varying in speed and with small chirps sometimes added before or after. Trill a bit more musical than the call. This morning at Willowbrook there are many juncos on the preserve, especially along the creek north of the bridge. They are foraging mainly up in the trees, also singing and chasing one another.

17MR99. Today another wave of juncos at Willowbrook. Some are appearing in places where I haven’t seen them all winter, so I’m inclined to regard them as new birds, migrants drifting north. Very active, like those on the 11th.

11OC99. First junco arrived at Willowbrook.

29JA00. Juncos along with Brewer’s blackbirds and others are at Fermilab buffalo feeders picking up spillage.

5FE00. Juncos common along roadsides near Culver.

22FE00. Willowbrook. First junco songs of the year (2 individuals).

10MR00. Willowbrook. Juncos singing regularly now. Today one fed from an open silver maple flower cluster.

13AP00. Willowbrook. Several juncos still present, have been there daily.

9MR01. This is the first day I’ve observed both singing and much chasing and other play-territorial behavior by juncos this year. A couple singers earlier in the season. It’s a much colder spring than last year, and there have been fewer juncos on the Willowbrook preserve.

30AU01. Juncos are in small groups at Algonquin Park, Ontario, usually associated with hemlock groves.

5OC10. Mayslake. Heard the first juncos of the season.

Kirtland’s Warbler Tour

by Carl Strang

Last Thursday and Friday I drove into the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. I had two goals, the first of which I’ll detail tomorrow. My secondary goal was to take the Kirtland’s warbler tour. This is a seasonal education opportunity offered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Michigan Audubon (nearly done for this year). The tours begin with a video introduction at the Ramada in Grayling, and then the guide leads participants in a car caravan to the tour site. We drove to an area where the current crop of jack pines was mainly 3-5 feet tall.

The pines are on a harvest rotation, with large areas clear-cut and replanted, so that there always are large areas covered with the small pines the warblers favor.

Kirtland’s warbler is a federally endangered species, but the population trend is upward and the range is expanding thanks to the intense management efforts. Now some are breeding in Wisconsin and Ontario as well as both peninsulas of Michigan. The rarity of the species draws birders to the area, and about 15 of us were on the Friday morning tour.

Allison, our guide, was knowledgeable, and there were plenty of competent birders in the group to assist with the spotting.

The area appears to be structurally and botanically fairly simple. The pines were dominant in the area, with scattered oaks and cherries the other large woody plants.

Jack pine has short needles and small, curved cones.

Between the pines were a few shrubs, mainly huckleberries or blueberries, as well as sweetfern, one of my favorites.

The wonderful odor of sweetfern leaves I associate with wild places. Sadly it does not occur in DuPage County, as it is a sandy soil species.

Among the herbaceous plants were scattered hairy puccoons.

This is another sandy soil plant.

The puccoons frequently threw off some of the more anxious birders whose search image was tuned to the color yellow. Kirtland’s warbler males were singing loudly at all times, but for a while they stayed out of sight. In the meantime we enjoyed a surprising diversity of birds for such a simple ecosystem: four sparrows (field, vesper, clay-colored, Lincoln’s), 3 warblers (Kirtland’s, Nashville, palm), nighthawk, upland sandpiper, brown thrasher, towhee, Brewer’s blackbird, and rose-breasted grosbeak were notable ones. Eventually a male Kirtland’s warbler perched and sang on an exposed branch.

This is an expanded view of the dot on my photo that represented the warbler. We had good spotting scope views.

The tour was highly satisfying. However, it did not allow me to further my primary goal, which was to find Roesel’s katydids in the Lower Peninsula. More on that tomorrow.

Red-winged Blackbird Dossier

by Carl Strang

Here’s another example of a species dossier. The idea is to separate what I have learned through my own observations from what I have learned through the literature or others’ observations. It is a tool that has enriched my understanding and improved my focus in the field. The initial summary, written when I established the dossier in the mid-1980’s, is followed by entries marked by my date code. Each month is represented by the first two letters of its name, except when two months begin with the same letter. Then, the second letter is unique to that month (JA, JE, and JL for January, June and July, respectively).

Blackbird, Red-winged

Nests seen in cattail marshes, attached to cattails, although birds also defend territories in dry, tall grass meadows. Out of breeding season may show up anywhere, though usually in open areas. Male advertizes with song (kong-la-ree’-er), either while perched or descending to perch on, say, tall cattail head. Capable of hiding or elevating and exposing red shoulder patches. When people approach nest, male especially but also female get highly excited, hovering overhead with sharp dry “keck” notes. Some individuals swoop down at intruders. Also chase crows, hawks. Hunt insects in breeding season, visit cornfields in flocks in fall. Gone from the north in winter.

5MR87. In morning, first of year on perches beside Butterfield Rd.

6MR88. Numbers of them at Winfield Mounds.

12MR89. First of year seen on way to Hartz Lake.

15AP89. Males often seen swiftly and closely chasing females, this time of year. Is she testing him, listening for wheezing, etc.?

1NO99. Last of the season seen at Willowbrook.

21FE00. Among several Brewer’s blackbirds at Fermilab’s buffalo feeders, a single male red-winged blackbird which called, once.

18JE00. A female flushed from a nest when I was about 10 feet away. Nest with 3 eggs, a woven grass cup ~3″ deep by 4″ across, attached to a dead woody stem in its fork, in a canary reed grass area and within the level of the grass, ~3 feet off the ground. Near edge of Herrick marsh.

22OC01. Some red-wings singing in the morning at south Blackwell.

31OC01. Flocks of red-wings and grackles remain (Nelson Marsh, Kane Co.)

4NO01. An enormous flock of red-wings and grackles along Kirk Road in eastern Kane County. The species were staying apart, on the whole, and there were mainly grackles, but there were hundreds of each. They were landing in a harvested corn field.

16MY06. Tri-County S.P. A male red-winged blackbird took flight and went straight for a pair of cowbirds foraging on the ground, more than 50 feet away. It chased them away, turning back as they kept going.

18MR09. Mayslake. Both red-wing and grackle include tail fanning and wing spreading in their displays. In the red-wing, these movements accompany the song but are expressed in a range from not at all or nearly so, slight fanning of tail, slight tail fanning and spreading of wings, much tail fanning and wing spreading.

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