Sunday, October 2, 2011

Field Sparrow

I had the opportunity to hang out a bit with members of the Ohio Bird Banding Association at their fall meeting, last Saturday morning. Unfortunately, the day dawned cold, drizzly and dreary, and the inclement weather impacted our ability to capture birds. Nonetheless, a few songbirds found their way into the nets, including one of my favorite sparrows.

A long string of nets stretches through an old field of goldenrod and aster at Hopewell Culture National Park near Chillicothe, Ohio. This can be a great locale for sparrows, and a few years back we netted about seven Henslow's Sparrows in this very field. Such success wasn't to be on this day, though. Part of the problem was the physical conditions. The best way to up the successful capture rate of sparrows is to line people up and organize drives through the field, herding the birds towards the nets. When those four foot tall matted tangles of goldenrod are saturated with rainwater, it's a tough task to trudge through them, and the driver will emerge soaked from the waist down. Plus, banders must of course put the birds' health and well-being first, and when conditions become too wet and chilly its best to roll up the nets and wait for a better day.

When conditions permitted, a few birds were caught. Here, bander Kelly Williams-Sieg removes a Field Sparrow, Spizella pusilla, that became entangled in the net.

And here he/she is, posing for us. This is a hatch-year field sparrow, sex unknown. Determining whether some young songbirds are boys or girls is not always easy, or possible.

Three major field marks can clearly be seen on our bird. It has a rusty cap, pinkish bill, and prominent white eye ring. Those three characters should serve to separate it from any other sparrow that you'll see in these parts. Young White-crowned Sparrows can suggest a Field Sparrow, but they are proportionately much larger and bulkier, among other differences.

One reason I like these dapper little sparrows so much is due to their lovely melodious song. This is how I described it in my book, Birds of Ohio: " accelerating series of short liquid whistles, sounding like a table-tennis ball dropped on a table and bouncing to a stop". That's hardly a unique or innovative song description, I realize, but it does pretty much sum up the sound.

The tune of the Field Sparrow is still a pretty common sound in Ohio, but the bird is declining. All manner of rampant development coupled with neater, cleaner agricultural practices have cut way down on the amount of suitable habitat. Partners in Flight estimates that 460,000 of these little songsters still make their home in Ohio, though.

The Field Sparrow above was born last summer in a well hidden grassy condo such as above. I found this nest a few years back in a grassy field, and the nest's opening is dead center in the photograph. Without benefit of seeing the parents making visits to the nest, it is highly unlikely it would be spotted. I saw one of the adults come out of that tussock and knew a nest would be close at hand, and with a bit of careful searching found it.

Moving in for a closer view, we see that baby Field Sparrows are born into a soft, grass-lined cup carefully crafted by the parents, and well secreted. Brown-headed Cowbirds can be good at spotting these nests, though, and female cowbirds regularly dump eggs in Field Sparrow nests. However, this species of sparrow can recognize the intruder's egg, but alas, the diminutive little Field Sparrow usually lacks the brute force required to shove the egg from the nest.

So, the sparrows often just pack their bags, abandon the nest, and build a new one elsewhere in the field. If cowbirds plague them once again, they might start the whole process over yet again. There are instances where long-suffering Field Sparrows have built and rejected numerous cowbird-parasitized nests.

But if all goes well, the world is graced with another beautiful little pink-billed sparrow, and the bouncing pingpong ball song will once again echo delicately from our meadows.

1 comment:

Dani said...

I also love the sparrow. It's such a delicate cheerful bird!

Dani @ ONNO Organic Clothing